For the first time in years, Oregon’s Dungeness crab season was able to start on time and it has already set records. This season has been the highest grossing so far and it’s not yet over. Kyle Retherford is the captain of the Excalibur and Bruce Jones is the mayor of Astoria. They join us with details.
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Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. The commercial Dungeness crab season opened up and down the Oregon coast on December 1st, meaning it opened as scheduled. That may not sound like a big deal, but it was the first time it wasn’t delayed in seven years. That was just the beginning of the good news for commercial crabbers. They have already taken in record revenue with more of the season to go. Kyle Retherford is the first fisherman based in Newport. He is the captain of the fishing vessel Excalibur and he joins us with more details. Kyle Retherford, welcome to Think Out Loud,
Kyle Retherford: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Miller: How has this season gone for you?
Retherford: This season has gone really well. We started on time which was really unexpected for all of us. We were actually caught off guard a little bit because of the delays, kind of become the new normal. So we were expecting a delay this year and there wasn’t one. But we were all really happy to see it start on time and be able to have a crab season in December kind of get back to how things used to be.
Miller: Caught off guard, were you ready to go?
Retherford: We were not, actually. In our line of work, we’re always doing something as commercial fishermen. So we were actually rigged up doing a mid-water trawl fishery and our pots were still in the gear shed and we had actually just gotten to the point where, hey, crab season’s coming around the corner, we should probably start doing some gear work and get our pots ready and rigged and that’s when we had heard that crab season was a ‘go,’ and we were going crabbing in two weeks. So it was a little bit of a mad scramble at first, get our pots rigged up, get the boat switched over and get going. But we managed and luckily last year we put the gear away, almost ready to fish. So there wasn’t a lot of preparation that we had to do to the pots, get them fishing ready.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for your own revenue this year compared to recent years?
Retherford: Our revenue this year was actually record breaking for us financially – it was the best year we’ve ever had. In comparison to previous years, last year was really poor. And then the two seasons prior to that, were fairly good, actually, 2019 was pretty well and 2020 we did well, but for us to have a good year, crabbing means a lot because it’s a third to half of our income for the whole entire year.
Miller: Even though it’s only a couple of months where you’re really going at it.
Retherford: Correct. The blunt of crab season that actually takes place, and realistically the first week to two weeks of the season, so from December 1st to December 14th, is kind of the derby crunch time. He who turns the most pots wins basically. And when I say that, I mean like whoever can haul the gear and pull the crab off the grounds the fastest, and that’s kind of everybody’s ultimate goal, is to get your bait in the pot and get your pots up, harvest your crab and kind of keep going.
Miller: It’s a good year, how much of that is about the number or size of the crabs that are down there and how much is about your crew and your vessel, and your operation?
Retherford: As far as what we’re harvesting or…
Miller: Exactly, I mean there’s a question of how much the crabs are going to fetch at the market, which is about supply and demand, but in terms of how much you’re able to bring in, I’m I guess I’m curious what is just the ‘luck of the draw,’ in terms of that year, and what is skill and preparation on the part of fishermen?
Retherford: Skill and preparation, I mean obviously you want all hands on deck to be top notch, hi-liners per se, and experienced. I know going into crab season for me, I like to have an experienced crew. Normally there’s one guy that has either little to no experience, he normally does the baiting and that’s kind of the ‘foot in the door,’ in crab season, as far as a deckhand goes. He’ll come on, he’ll bait, he’ll see the operation and then you move up the chain from there. There’s very important key roles on the boat and you know, me driving the boat, I can only go as fast as my crew, and so it really takes everybody to be working in unison to fulfill the ultimate goal of catching as much crab as you can and for us, depending on how much crab is on the grounds, we could catch and fill our boat up in two days or seven days, and like this year it was an eight day trip, the first go. So it was about a little over a week. And we brought in 92,000 pounds, our first off-load. That was huge for us because you come in and you off-load and you go back out and you can’t expect the same results to the second week as you did, the first kick.
Miller:What’s it like to head back to port with 92,000 pounds of crab in the boat? I mean what is it, what’s in your mind?
Retherford: It’s undescribable. The feeling as a fisherman, you feel very accomplished. I mean for me it would be like the same feeling the guy would get for climbing Mount Everest. You know, all the hard work, the preparation, the hours spent at sea and just the time and it’s like winning a football game. You’re overjoyed your hard work paid off. It’s kind of an adrenaline rush almost.
Miller: I imagine you don’t get paid though until that crab has been delivered. Right?
Retherford: Yeah, so we deliver to Pacific Seafoods in Newport and we off-load the crab live. So everything’s live, we come in, all the crab come off live go into totes, and then they go straight into cooking within the first 10 hours, 12 hours of our off-load and then we have a set price that we go fishing for. We get paid every two weeks by the plant.
Miller: How long have you been a crabber?
Retherford: 11 years.
Miller: And you come from a fishing family, what did it mean to you to become the captain of your own boat?
Retherford: It meant a great deal to me. The boat is owned by my father. It’s kind of been the stepping stone for all of us boys. I have two older brothers that now run their own boats. And when my second oldest brother moved on, I was working the back deck for him and he was captaining the Excalibur. When he moved on and I seen it as my opportunity to grow and step up and my dad came back for a short minute and to see that basically things were being run right, and then I’ve been there since and it’s very accomplishing to be able to manage a crew, a boat, go out and harvest crab and… very accomplishing, I guess.
Miller: Kyle Retherford, thanks for joining us and sharing your experience with us. I appreciate it.
Retherford: Yeah, no problem.
Miller: Kyle Retherford. He is a commercial fisherman based in Newport, the captain of the fishing vessel Excalibur. We’re talking right now about record revenue brought in by Oregon’s commercial crabbers this season. For more on what this means to coastal communities, communities more broadly, I am joined by Bruce Jones. He is the Mayor of Astoria. Bruce Jones, welcome back to the show.
Bruce Jones: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. What has this record crab season meant for the local economy in Astoria or Clatsop County?
Jones: Yeah, the crab season this year has just had a tremendous positive impact on the greater Astoria area. You know, the dollars our fishermen received for their catch has a ripple effect. So far, there’s more than $26 million dollars that’s been paid out to local commercial fishermen for crab just in Astoria. And you know, the money our fishermen earned goes right back into the local economy in a variety of ways, on maintenance and upgrades of their fishing boats, new fishing gear and equipment. This is a very high risk industry, and the fishermen need to have boats that are safe and they need to be more effective. So being able to pay for boat maintenance translates directly into jobs for a wide variety of skilled blue collar workers, people that specialize in fiberglass and electronics, hydraulics and engines. It’s money going to our marine supply stores and over the last two years of the pandemic that like everything else, the costs of materials used on fishing boats has gone up and there’s labor shortages. So it’s more expensive to do those boat upgrades and boat maintenance. So having a great season and having that additional revenue, it allows the fishermen to offset those higher expenses and get that work done. And the deckhands, even Captain Retherford mentioned the new guy who’s starting off well, he gets to go buy new rain gear now and other personal equipment that typically you’re going to get at a local marine supply store. You know, it puts money in the fishing and the fishing crew and all the other folks that are affected by this greater economic benefit are now able to go buy a new refrigerator, do home repairs, which hires local craftsmen that do work on houses, lets them send their kids to college. And what’s really important for small rural communities like ours is it helps with civic things like sponsoring a little league team. So there’s just a tremendous impact. And you’ve probably noticed when you’ve come down to the coast,
tourists like to see fishing boats. They like to go to the marina. If they get to the port when the fishing boats are coming in and offloading their catch, they can watch that from the pier. I mean it’s a tourism thing too. And people hear about how great crab season is this year and they want to come out to the coast to visit and get some fresh seafood. But you know, the last thing I mentioned, probably the most important thing other than economic impact, fishing is part of our heritage here in Astoria we’re historically a natural resource based economy, fishing, canning and logging. And so to see our fishermen be so successful is just a great way to help preserve that heritage in our community, which has had a greater share of the economy taken up by tourism in recent years. And so it’s great that those traditional industries are doing well too.
Miller: I’m curious what the opposite of a good fishing year or crabbing year looks like. I mean, so what do you see when there, is not record revenue?
Jones: Well, and what you see is deferred maintenance on boats. You see boats that are going out to see that are not safe. You see our local coast guard crews that do search and rescue having to go out and tow more boats in because they haven’t been well maintained. You see our marine suppliers operating on IOUs. One of our major marine supply stores locally told me it was that all of the commercial fishing accounts are paid up because this crab season has been so successful. Really, I think that the safety issue, if you have a couple of bad seasons and the fishermen just can’t afford to get the new gear, they can’t afford to do all the upgrades they need to do. And this is a very high risk industry. So we want to see our fishermen safe and they’re able to do that now.
Miller: Bruce Jones. Thanks for joining us today. I appreciate it.
Jones: Thank you.
Miller: That’s Bruce Jones. He is the Mayor of Astoria.