Sea lions laze on the docks barking. Deckhands shout “We’re finally gonna make some money!”
They pile $300 crab pots off the docks of Westport and Tokeland onto the captain’s boats — as much as the boats will hold — and sprinkle salty words into their mutterings. They cram each pot with bait jars full of a combination of razor clams and chunks of frozen squid.
At 8 a.m. this past Sunday, “Dump Day” took over the ports at Westport and Tokeland. “Dump Day,” a raw and unofficial title, is where the commercial crabbers get to drop their pots in the water for the first time since September 2022.
There are about 200 active fishers for commercial Dungeness crab in Washington state. They hail from Ilwaco, Chinook, Westport, Tokeland and La Push.
The fishery brings in millions of dollars to those communities, powering the local economies. They fish from the Columbia River to Cape Flattery at the top of Washington state near Neah Bay, and include the estuaries of the Columbia River, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
The pots have been “soaking.” Commercial crabbers were allowed to pull pots they dropped on Sunday, starting at 8 a.m. today, Wednesday, Feb. 1.
The crabbers hope they’ll be full after waiting months for the opener. Hope and disappointment are at the heart of crabbing. Pots full of crab, with top prices, are the hope. Lack of crab and low prices is the disappointment. Part of the excitement of “Dump Day” is likened to gambling — you never know when you’re going to hit or bust.
The traditional crab opener is Dec. 1, but the crab’s meat hadn’t laid in enough until now. Fishermen, some living paycheck to paycheck, waited for two months. Prices, with a desired per pound of $3.50, are whispered it’s about to be $2,50 per pound or lower. The price is powered by the constant changing equation of supply and demand.
The cannery at Tokeland — Nelson Crab Inc. — is gearing up as well, with forklifts scuttling about getting ready for the massive infusion of world-renowned Dungeness crab, considered by many to be the best crustacean to eat in the world. Some will be boxed up and flown around the world just hours from the sea, fresh and on ice.
Many crabbers have licenses to drop 500 pots, some less. It often takes the captain a few times of loading the pots, cruising out into Willapa Bay and back to the dock for those moored in Tokeland. The larger ships out of Westport head out to open water and the Pacific Ocean.
Laszlo Fulop, 56, Westport, runs the dock at Tokeland. The dock is leased by Nelson Crab, Inc., and Fulop’s girlfriend owns the business. Fulop defected from communist Hungary when he was 19, and landed a job fishing in the Bering Sea in the Northern Pacific Ocean off of Alaska. He fished it for 22 years.
He works where he is needed. A few weeks ago the person in charge of the Tokeland dock walked off the job, a common occurrence in the fishing industry.
While he enjoys running the dock, it’s a far cry from being out on the boat.
“It’s different from fishing, you kind of feel like you’re left out,” he said this past Sunday from the Tokeland dock, where the temperature was cold and biting, but the sun was out, buoying most spirits working that day.
Jeremy Hammond, 50, Tokeland, is a deckhand for the Southern Cross, a fishing boat moored in Tokeland. His dad was a Bering Sea captain. He spent 12 years fishing the Bering Sea, an inhospitable water full of wind and waves and severe cold. Fit as a fiddle, this past Saturday he manhandled the crab pots as he filled the hull and then the deck of the Southern Cross. Hammond has a softer side, playing guitar, writing his own songs. He has a baby grand piano in his living room. But his essence is as a fisherman.
“I’m excited to go out there and make a paycheck,” he said.
Hammond, along with the rest of the fleet, will fish through May, for about three or four months. Then he likely will turn to summer fishing for tuna, salmon and other seafood. He was born to fish, starting at a young age with his father.
“I like being on the water, on the ocean, I feel safe out there,” Hammond said. “I feel like I am at peace with my life, like I’m meant to be there. The busyness and craziness of the world can’t reach me.”
Part of the call of the ocean and the life of a fisherman is pride in a job well done.
“I love being out on the ocean, the main reason is that’s where I want to prove myself as a man,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest things you can do, not everyone is cut out for it.
“At the end of the day, you can say you put in an honest day’s work with your hands. It’s satisfying. You work hard for your money, you deserve your paycheck.”
Hammond has been looking forward to “Dump Day,” the start of the crabbing fishery.
“It’s like all the racehorses are lined up, and they’re raring to go, waiting for the gate to drop so you can go out there and win the race,” he said.
Andy Mitty, 52, Grayland, is the captain of the Ragnarok, moored in Tokeland. He’s also the president of the Willapa Bay Gillnet Association. He’s another fisherman born into the life. His grandfather Chris Nelson owned Nelson Crabbing, Inc. Mitty bought his first boat at the age of 16, a gillnetter.
He was out on the Tokeland dock getting loaded up with pots from Fulop on Sunday. He was excited to get fishing.
“Everybody’s in great spirits, with the great weather,” he said. “We’re chomping at the bit.”
He said he planned to pull his 250 pots today (Wednesday, Feb. 1).
“I’m ready to pounce,” he said. “I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s a job when you wake up you want to go to work. … It’s nice to get the pots out of your yard and into the water. It’s good to get out there and see the other boats. It’s like a New Year’s party.”
You can also get into a lot of trouble fishing.
As reported by National Fisher, in 2021 the 50-foot boat the Terry F., captained by Terry Finley with his dog Shelly and two deckhands, set out on “Dump Day” from Westport. The weather was nasty. His boat was loaded with crab pots. The boat rocked, and the gear broke through the railing. The boat took on water, causing a loss of power. Finley radioed the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard found the boat four miles off shore. All three men were wearing survival gear when they were rescued. The boat was a loss, foundering on the beach.
Both Hammond and Fulop have encountered situations where life was almost lost. Both state they were able to remain calm in the midst of chaos.
They also believe it is all worthwhile.
On the money side, the costs are high running a boat. Crab pots alone for those with a license to drop 500 pots can cost $15,000. Add on fuel costs, loading and unloading charges and paychecks, and profit is not assured.
But in ideal conditions, the money flows. Deckhands, working a top-notch boat, and if the crabbing is hot, can pull in $15,000 every two weeks, as much as $90,000 in a good month. Captains, owners of the boats, can make millions.
“It’s great for the local economy,” Mitty said. “This is what our community is based on.”
But it isn’t all about money.
“For me, it’s never been about the money,” Fulop said. “You find a sense of peace. You meet all sorts of people.”
Fulop said he’s suffered through 35-foot seas for days on end. There’s the cold — in 2012 he fished during 39-degrees-below-zero temperatures up north, pulling in millions of tons of fish, getting frostbite in his nose.
“You learn a lot about yourself. … You have to have that passion,” he said. “I have never had to put my head down and hide.”
The fishermen are lured to the romantic and often brutal life of bringing in seafood, but it also provides that sense of serenity.
Mitty has been fishing with his best friend from junior high, high school and college.
“You get to call your own hours and call your own shots,” Mitty said. “It has its ups and downs. You don’t fish for a season, you fish for a career.”
Hammond speaks for all the crabbers, the fishermen and fisherwomen, who have done it for more than a season.
“I love my job, it’s a lifestyle,” Hammond said. “I’ll never change. I’ll be a fisherman until I die.”
Michael Wagar can be reached at 360-269-7979 and firstname.lastname@example.org.