The San Francisco Dungeness crab fleet has been through a lot in the past five years. First there were domoic acid closures starting in 2015, then overwhelming scrutiny over whale entanglements that led to court-mandated restrictions in 2019. Along came the Covid-19 pandemic dropped the price so low in late March many crabbers had to stop fishing. Finally, a May 23 fire in a gear warehouse on Pier 45 torched millions of dollars in commercial fishing gear — destroying up to 10,000 crab traps.
“It’s been a wild ride here at Pier 45 — I’ve never seen anything like it in all my days,” said Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Community Fishing Association who operates on the cooperative seafood business on the wharf.
“A 200-yard building is now a pile of rubble, all twisted steel and concrete lying on top of $5 million of fishing gear,” Collins continued. The cause of the 4-alarm fire that shot flames more than 100 feet into the air above the San Francisco Bay early on a Saturday morning is under investigation, said San Francisco Fire Lt. Jon Baxter. There has also been no official tally of the damage, but nearly all agree the cost to fishermen will be well into millions with Collins’ estimate of $5 million being the most accurate projection thus far.
While the losses are severe, the worst-case scenario was averted. Three other buildings on the pier, home to more than a dozen seafood processors and wholesalers, were spared damaged. The structural integrate of wharf also remained intact so that the businesses could get back to producing ice and off-loading in-season salmon within a few days of the blaze.
“The firemen did a good job — a real good job — it’s a tough kind a fire,” Collins said, a day after the fire.
John Barnett, a fisherman and president of Crab Boat Owners Association, said around two-thirds of San Francisco fishermen’s capacity of harvest seafood had been lost. Barnett himself lost 650 Dungeness crab pots, a crab block, hydraulic equipment and crab tanks. All told more than 30 fishermen lost their gear with some facing setbacks of $500,000.
Outside Dungeness crab gear, herring nets, buoys, blackcod and shrimp traps, miscellaneous gear and engine parts are gone, Barnett said. It’s unlikely that fishermen’s insurance will cover any of the destroyed gear.
With the cause of fire still yet to be determined, Mike Conroy the executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, calls what — if any — relief from the Port of San Francisco’s insurance could provide an “open question.”
The Crab Boat Owners Association has set up a Gofundme page to help San Francisco crabbers get back on their feet with a goal to raise $1 million. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association has also set up a special fund through its nonprofit arm, the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
All donations to the relief fund are tax deductible and will be passed on directly to the Crab Boat Owners Association, Conroy said.
Many fishermen will not be able to fish at full capacity during the upcoming crab season because of the gear loss. Barnett plans on buying 250 Dungeness crab pots after losing 650. He notes that he’ll be hard pressed to get those rigged in time to set gear in the fall.
Some fishermen will also have to choose between fishing for salmon, groundfish and other local fisheries and rigging new gear, Conroy said. Without enough time for both lost income for San Francisco fishermen could be as very costly as well.
Barnett has asked Dungeness crab fishermen, from Washington to other areas in California, to consider selling any old gear they have to San Francisco fishermen looking to rebuild. Old stacks of crab pots and piles bait jars could be very useful to fishermen who have lost it all.