HALF MOON BAY — Only hours away from the official opening of Dungeness crab season, men and their boats swarmed around Johnson Pier on Tuesday afternoon, each fisherman praying that this winter will reverse a long, hard stretch of bad luck.
“Three bad years. We need to start digging ourselves out of the hole,” said Niko von Broembsen, 49, of Oakland, sunburned and weary as he raced to prepare for one of fishing’s most dangerous, uncertain and lucrative catches.
“We have some of the best quality crab out there,” he added. “We just need to go get it.”
Boats bobbed in the water as fishermen impatiently waited in line at Pillar Point Harbor for a hoist
to drop dozens of 100-pound pots onto freshly scrubbed decks. On docks, amid the beeping of frenetic forklifts, men loaded some pots by hand, shouting as they ran up and down ramps.
Then the loaded vessels cruised out of the harbor, fading into the late afternoon sun, so the fishermen could drop dozens of pots out at sea.
If all goes well, they would be positioned and ready to haul up their pots by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — the official opening of the season.
Then, under bright sodium lights, they’ll peer at the pots to assess their catch.
“It’s like looking under a Christmas tree,” said 55-year-old crabber Todd Korth, helping load two boats, the New Day and the Roaring Twenties-era Smith Brothers Two.
“After bad seasons it’s nice to look towards something pretty good,” said Korth, a Campbell resident. “There was lot of hurt on the whole fleet, up and down the coast.”
Recent years have been disappointing for consumers, who look forward to the sweet, briny meat for special holiday feasts at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and January community crab feeds.
On Tuesday, Ray Snyder, who orders all the fish for Lafayette’s upscale Diablo Foods market, was looking forward to the crabbers’ first haul — and lots of satisfied customers.
“If we have crab through the holidays, everyone’s real happy,” Snyder said.
With an “atmospheric river” storm headed our way from the tropics, opening-day weather could be an issue, he said. “But if we get lucky and they get their pots pulled Wednesday, then we might have some crab Thursday,” he said.
Otherwise, he expects to have crab from his supplier by late in the week, with plenty for Thanksgiving.
Dungeness crab fishing is a notoriously unreliable livelihood. The crustaceans crawl along the seabed, so fishermen are never sure whether or not they’re dropping pots in the crabs’ path.
But the past several years have compounded the usual woes of local fishermen.
Two winters ago, the season was delayed more than four months over food safety concerns caused by a rare toxic algae. When the fishermen finally lowered their pots into the Pacific in late March, there was an unusually weak harvest. They were also hurt by the unprecedented collapse of the Pacific chinook salmon fishery.
Last year, the season started on time, but owners of small and mid-size boats found it hard to make a living because of all the big storms.
Even before these troubles, they were challenged by expensive permits, stiffer regulations and the increasing cost of doing business.
A mid-sized boat might be worth $250,000 to $300,000. A permit costs another $8,000. Each pot costs hundreds of dollars. Even when the boats are idle, the bills add up.
Crews race to catch their limit — 8,000 to 10,000 pounds per vessel, if they’re lucky — then unload it and return for more.
The tension can push crews and the boats to their limits. Crabbing comes with a high risk of getting tangled in nets, caught in hydraulic equipment or getting knocked overboard by an uncontrolled crab pot.
“There are a lot of dangers,” Korth said. “You really have to watch and be careful. You need a minimum amount of sleep to stay alert. My crew, we work smart.”
Shouted von Broembsen, as he unloaded pots from a flatbed truck: “I was once attacked by a great white shark.”
Mother Nature throws her own curve balls. Even as they raced to get out to sea, the crabbers worried about Wednesday’s weather.
The National Weather Service predicted gusts up to 20 to 30 knots. And they winds are shifting to the south, creating dangerous “cross seas” where wind-blown waves collide with large swells, causing gear to shift and cargo — or men — to be washed overboard.
“We need a really good season,” said Dan Durbin, 54, of San Jose. “But I’m optimistic because I’m a fisherman. I’m always hoping for the best.”
Staff writer Linda Zavoral contributed to this report.