Crabbers on the move in Oak Harbor

"Boat, said Julie Rothwell. Yup, said Russell Seelye. With that, the two left the comfortable, warm galley of the fishing tender Taku, anchored off Blower's Bluff on Wednesday, and headed on deck to take the lines of the commercial crab boat, Seeker. Seelye and Rothwell - skipper and first mate aboard the 67-foot, 1947-era Taku - spent a lot of time leaving the galley Wednesday. They were busy buying dungeness crab from a fleet of about 35 commercial crab fishermen, lured to the waters around Oak Harbor last week by a productive 39-hour spring opening for commercial crabbers. By anchoring Taku in Oak Harbor, Seelye and Rothwell enabled the crabbers to fish, quickly off-load their catch and get back to fishing without having to waste precious hours running their catch to Everett or Anacortes to find a buyer. For their part, the two would keep a running total of each fisherman's catch and give them a check after their last delivery, then take the boat and up to 30,000 pounds of dungeness back to Blaine Crab. Once Seeker was moored to Taku, it's skipper, Chuck Mason, climbed aboard. Down on the main deck, Seelye worked the levers of a small hydraulic boom to lift a plastic trash can brimming with crab off the smaller boat onto Taku's live, or sea-water-filled holding tanks. Rothwell, positioned by an open hatch on top of the tanks, guided the load to spot near the hatch, then called out the weight via a digital scale shackled between the crane's line and hook. Mason, looked over at the scale's readout and smiled. It's fair, Mason said, describing both the weight and the opening in general. Fair, as in pretty good, in the singularly understated language of commercial fishermen. Now it's time to pick and move, pick and move. That said, Mason climbed aboard his boat and he and crewman Jack Savage let go their lines and steered Seeker back out into Saratoga Passage. Like many of the commercial fishermen who delivered their catch to Taku on Wednesday, they were in a hurry to get back out on the water. Crab pots were soaking and the fishing was fair. In fact, fairness had much to do with the opening. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife scheduled the spring opening to balance the scales between tribal and non-tribal commercial crabbers. The system stems from the 1994 Rafeedie Decision , a federal court order mandating a 50-50 split of the shellfish resource between tribal and non-tribal fishermen. This was a scheduled fishery at the end of season to help treaty and non-treaty fishermen achieve parity, said Norm Lemberg, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The abundance out there was more than anticipated by the test fishery. The treaty and commercial fishermen caught more than was expected and there's still a good abundance out there. With the tribe's catch exceeding their allotment, non-tribal commercial crabbers were allowed to catch between 50,000 and 55,000 pounds of crab last week. Minutes after Seeker pulled away, Brian Haling pulled alongside in Minor Detail, a gillnetter/crabber home-ported in Bellingham. He's one of the highliners, Seeley said, using a term associated with successful fishermen. Holing's first dungeness delivery to Taku totaled more than 1,000 pounds. A lot more than he'd hoped for, Holing allowed, what with a healthy average dock price of more than $3.25 a pound. This crab fishery is pretty hot, Holing said, smiling. This keeps up, I might even be able to pay my crew this time. In the past, Holing fished salmon in Alaska and owned his own boat. But the boat burned in 1998. Since then he's fished for reds, or sockeye salmon, in Bristol Bay and fished Minor Detail as a gillnetter and a crabber in the Puget Sound. All I do is fish, he said. Holing holds two commercial crab licenses, worth about $18,000 each. Consequently, he was allowed to fish with 50 crab pots - wire mesh-enclosed steel cages shaped like old-fashioned, heavy hat boxes and weighing about 65 pounds each. Fishermen bait a container inside the pots, drop them overboard, then let them sit, or soak, on the bottom for up to several hours. Crabs squeeze through a small opening in the side but can't get back out. A small personalized buoy, attached to the pot with nylon line, floats to the surface when the pot sinks and marks its location. With the opening starting at 7 p.m. last Tuesday, and night fishing prohibited, Seelye figured most fishermen would get to make at least three deliveries before the fishery closed at 10 a.m. Thursday. He hoped so, both because he was due for a percentage of his total load and because he'd been in the industry long enough to remember when a man could make a decent living fishing Puget Sound for salmon. In the 42 years he's spent in the industry, the 60-year-old fisherman and tender operator said he'd fished for salmon in Alaska, and tendered for salmon fishermen and crabbers up and down Puget Sound, both tribal and non-tribal. As Holing prepared to leave in a soft, steady rain, he was asked if weather was affecting his fishing. I haven't really been paying attention, he said. I gotta be out there anyway. Two more boats arrived, unloaded their catch then faded back into the mist. Deliveries temporarily over, Seelye and Rothwell went back into Taku's galley. With its old diesel cooking stove radiating heat, a coffee pot perking and a corner dinette bordered with soft, cushioned benches, it made for a snug spot on a rainy, chill afternoon. Seelye tapped a cigarette out of a plastic box and leaned against the doorway near the stove. Anymore, he said, someone like Holing - a fisherman who can still support himself commercial fishing in Puget Sound - is the exception to the rule.The majority of fishermen who visit his boat, Seelye noted, probably work shore jobs to augment their fishing. But this opening, this would help. Most of these guy aren't going to Alaska anymore, but they're hanging in there fishing, he said. Fishing to be fishing, not making a living. Then they get an opening like this and it's like mana from heaven. Seelye turned and started to pour himself a cup of coffee. Boat, Rothwell called down from the pilothouse. Yup."

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