The Crescent City Harbor was a beehive of activity Friday night as boat owners and their crews waited to see if they could head out to fish for Dungeness crab. By Saturday morning, it was eerily quiet.
After the state of California announced crab season would not open until Dec. 23, most of the owners and crews headed home to wait another week.
The only boat with activity was the Fishing Vessel Resolution, where boat owner Richard Nehmer and his crew made some final preparations. Nehmer also took the extra time to work with greenhorn Blake Mihelich, who is going crabbing for the first time.
Nehmer was joined on the boat by his wife, Annie, and their children, Alana and Connor. For the Nehmers, fishing is and has always been a family affair.
“My grandfather was a fisherman, my father was a fisherman,” Richard said. “Connor will be a fourth-generation fisherman. Connor literally fishes with us. It’s his business, he just has to wait a few years.”
Like most professional fishermen in Crescent City, fishing is a year-round business for the Nehmers. The crab season will run until May, and they quickly move on to chasing tuna and later fishing for rock fish. And in Crescent City, the economic impact is immense. During crab season, up to 10 million pounds of crab will be caught, and the livelihoods of thousands depends on the commercial anglers.
“On opening of crab season, this whole harbor will be empty,” Richard said. “There will be no boats here.”
While fishing goes on all year, the money maker is Dungeness crab. And in the crab season, a fast start is necessary.
“A huge percentage of our yearly income is the first week of crab season,” Richard said. “The first week will set the tone for the rest of the year.”
And with fishing expected to be challenging this year, Richard said all the boat owners were ready to go. By the books, crab season starts Dec. 1 every year, but it is common for the start to be delayed. In Oregon, the state announced crabbing could begin Dec. 16, but California chose to wait an extra week.
“Starting on Christmas Eve is not an ideal day,” Richard said. “It’s a difficult situation every year depending on the state of California. Fish and wildlife sets the regulation.”
And like every other business, 2020 has made it difficult for fishing
“Fishing under COVID-19 policies is extremely difficult for small businesses,” Richard said.
Even with the challenges, the fishermen find ways to adjust. Annie said her family celebrated Christmas last week, just in case.
While fishing is a family venture, some have more experience than others. Annie married into the business, but said she loves working with her husband.
“I’m from inland, so I knew nothing,” she said. “It’s a steep learning curve. I love it.”
According to Richard, she has learned well and just might be the best rock fisherman on the boat, now.
While making a living right now is important, so too is preparing for the future. On the opening week of crab season, Richard will leave his family behind and fish with a crew of four people. They will set 500 pots in the ocean and check them every 24 hours. After three days at sea, they will return to offload the crab. And then the cycle begins again, continuing for the next five months.
Later in the season, Annie and Connor will join the crew to continue their learning curve. Alana enjoys the boat, but she prefers to stay with grandma most of the time.
“Connor and others his age are the future of fishing in Del Norte County,” Richard said.
While Richard and Annie said they expect the 2020-21 season to be challenging, that is nothing new. After a lifetime of fishing, Richard said he has learned Dungeness crab fishing is very cyclical. The cycles run about seven or eight years with great fishing slowly slipping down and then fishing picks back up for a number of years.
Richard said while he has heard stories of doom and gloom for the ocean, his experience is far different.
“We have probably the healthiest ecosystem we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Richard said. “With that, we have an overabundance of forage fish and whales off the coast of California.”
Despite the challenges, Richard and his family are ready for what lies ahead. Richard explained that fishing was good for his grandfather, his father and has been good for his family. He only hopes it will remain a good way for Connor to take care of his family in the future.