Very few would ever accuse commercial fisherman of being an especially optimistic lot. And for good reason. Beyond the romantic notions of casting nets upon the open sea, coasting with the free wind at your back and salt on your skin – there is a gritty reality.
That reality can be felt all along San Francisco's Fisherman’s Wharf this week as cranes load stacks of crab pots into boats, and wary fishermen make their final preparations for the opening of Dungeness crab season this Sunday.
The reality is etched into their faces, faces that have witnessed this same ritual for decades. The problem is, by most accounts, there aren’t many crabs this year.
“From looking at the sports catch and the testing we did, it’s not looking real good,” Crab Boat Association President Larry Collins said.
Collins stood on the wharf, lighting a home-rolled cigarette, watching a crew of fishermen fill their boat with traps.
“You never really know until they splash the trap,” he said. “So they’ll go do it and we’ll see what happens.”
Recreational fishermen, who’ve already been crabbing a week, say the crabs they’re catching are too small to keep. The predictions of a weak season have some San Francisco commercial fishermen heading North to try their luck near Crescent City.
But some, like 30 year fisherman Rich Fitzpatrick, say they will crab the home waters.
“Everybody’s pretty strapped for money,“ he said. “So no matter crabs or no crabs… we’re going to put traps out anyway and see what happens.”
These are tough times for fishermen. Tougher than anyone here can remember. The last two commercial Salmon seasons have been cancelled because of lack of fish. And last year’s crab season was a dismal one.
“I’ve never seen the fleet in such desperate straits as it is now,” says Collins, who plans to crab up North this year.
The tanks of The Alito-Lazio fish company on Fisherman’s Wharf sit mostly empty, except for a few Washington crabs. Angel Cincotta hopes they’ll be filled with local Dungeness crabs on Monday, after the first boats return. But there is a backup plan, if the dire predictions about the season hold true.
“If we are not able to do it locally then the Pacific Northwest will fill in,”said Angel Cincotta.”It’s all about making people happy for the holidays, or at least trying to.”
Collins says he won’t know what to expect until the first commercial traps are pulled in on Sunday. And though he may not be an optimist, he’s hoping the long streak of bad luck at Fisherman's Wharf, will finally lift.