SOUTH COAST — Commercial crab fishermen from Morro Bay, Calif., all the way to the Canadian border have gone on strike.
Crab pots are piled on boats were still tied up in the harbors all along the West coast on Dec. 28 because Bandon Pacific and other wholesale buyers want to pay 25 cents less than the negotiated price to fishermen on the southern Oregon coast.
“This is all over a quarter,” said Charleston fisherman Jim Thornsberry. “Thousands of people are out of work because processors don't want to pay us what they are already paying fishermen in California.”
John Corbin, fisherman out of Columbia River and the chairman of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, explained that $3 per pound was the negotiated price prior to the Brookings and Port Orford crab opening on Dec. 18.
“But then the processors dropped their price on Monday and we went back to the negotiation table, but they drew a line in the sand at $2.75,” Corbin said. “We've had several openings on the coast in California, and they all went fishing at $3 a pound. Here though, the processors want to drop the price and we don't know why.”
Once fishermen discovered the potential price drop for the rest of the Oregon coast, they tied up their boats and are demanding what they claim is a fair wage be paid. Corbin said there was a staggered crab season opening in California, which followed elevated levels of domic acid detected in local crabs. Once the levels had lowered, seasons began opening at different times on the West coast.
“There were a few loads of crab brought in on the (central) California coast, but once they heard about what they wanted to pay us, they didn't go back out,” Corbin said. “The only fishermen actively fishing are the tribes in Washington. We could have opened our season here on Thursday, where fishermen could have dumped their pots, but because of the strike they all just stayed in the harbor and waited.”
Corbin said there is usually solidarity among fishermen, and is glad “we are all tied up together.”
“Whenever the processors are ready to raise the price, we're ready to go,” he said.
Last year, the season opened at $2.90, which is still more than the offered $2.75 processors want to pay local fishermen now.
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“The processors did this years ago,” Thornsberry said. “If they don't bring that price up, we stay broke. Every time we pull in with one load of crab, it puts 50 or 60 people to work from dock workers, cleaners, everyone. Some of us haven't worked since October, and we need the money.”
Charleston fisherman Clay Holt has been in the business for almost 40 years and wasn't surprised that this was happening.
“They could always bring the price up later in the season, which is what they usually do,” he said. “By then there is a lot of demand and low supply. We get most of our crab in the first month, and then less and less and less as the season continues.”
When he fished in the early '90s, the price per-pound was $2.45 in Bodega Bay. Though Holt didn't seem surprised by the low-balled price now, he was still insulted.
“They know we're not going to do anything right now anyway, even if we could have dumped our pots today,” he said. “You can't leave the Coos Bay harbor with a 20-foot swell. Big boats could maybe make it, if you turn your radio off and keep going, but the Coast Guard will close the harbor down and there is a fine if you try.”
A Charleston fisherman known as “Boston Don” expects the strike to continue until the middle of next week, after the big swell goes down and boats can finally make it out of the bay.
“Look around," he said. "We're all loaded up, we want to go fishing, and we already went through Christmas broke so they figure why not make us go through New Years broke? All we want is a decent price to earn a living. Is it too much to ask for a fair wage?”
Corbin isn't sure when the strike will end, but said fishermen aren't losing any money yet because the crabs are going to stay where they are for the moment.
“They are down there, waiting to be picked up,” he said. “The crabs are all in good shape, the meat fill is good, and we're ready to go. We just need the price to go up. When that will happen though . . . I don't know.”
The World reached out to Bandon Pacific for comment, but no calls or messages were answered as of Tuesday.