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Ilwaco community rallies to salvage crabbing season after fire

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: January 29, 2024, 8:30am

MOUTH OF THE COLUMBIA RIVER — Deckhand Curtis McKenzie and his captain, Zeke Estrella, of the Sunset Charge pulled up to Ilwaco Landing last Monday to drop off crab pots.

The landing, which serves as a hub for Dungeness crab harvests, was oddly quiet, and workers didn’t meet them as they pulled in. So they went down to see what was going on.

They smelled smoke, then saw an inferno.

Estrella pushed into the growing blaze with a fire extinguisher, but the flames were too intense. They would later overwhelm firefighters and level the wooden dock and fish-receiving facility owned by Bornstein Seafoods.

Thousands of stacked crab pots, carefully prepared and waiting for the season beginning Thursday, were destroyed.

“It was odd watching everything you do go up in flames,” McKenzie said under the mast light Tuesday evening aboard the Sunset Charge, which lost nearly 600 pots in the blaze.

The fire has rocked this small fishing town near the Oregon border, days before the most important season opener for many coastal fishers.

A lot is on the line. The 2022 Dungeness crab coastal fishery was worth about $64.6 million, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

For some, it was unclear whether fishers could recover in time.

But just hours after the fire, as smoke rose from the remnants, the port was buzzing as the community pulled together to restore what was lost.

Fishing cultures

In less than two centuries, the small port town perched on a peninsula at the mouth of the Columbia River became a pillar of the state’s seafood economy.

Initially called Unity by settlers, the town later came to be known as Ilwaco, after Ilwak’u, son-in-law of Chief Comcomly of the Chinook people, said Chinook Indian Nation Vice Chair Sam Robinson.

Extractive economies were built upon the sea-washed landscape, harvesting ancient trees from nearby forests and transforming the river’s mouth into a sawmill and fishing town.

On Aug. 3, 1903, the Seattle Daily Times headline read, “Ilwaco Fishermen Busy.”

“All operators of seines, nets and traps were overloaded with fine salmon,” the brief states, adding that trappers were unloading 1 to 2 tons of fish, and gill-netters’ nets were tearing under the weight of their catch.

Upstream, since settlers’ arrival, these salmon and their descendants lost thousands of miles of free-flowing spawning and rearing habitat to a series of dams and pools used to generate hydropower and support goods traveling by barge. The freest reach of the river would soon become one of the most polluted, containing toxic chemicals and waste.

Over the years, fewer salmon returned for the Indigenous people who had harvested and cared for the fish for thousands of years and for newcomers who relied upon the species to make a living.

With salmon harvests far lower than in decades past, Dungeness crab emerged as the state’s most lucrative commercial harvest. It’s seen as a sustainable fishery, but officials can’t assess the number of crabs in the ocean.

Meanwhile, studies are underway to better understand how stressors from climate change — marine heat waves, ocean acidification and low oxygenation — will affect the future of the species and the fishery.

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Today, hundreds of boats cross the perilous Columbia River Bar in the middle of winter in hopes of making it big, or, some years, breaking even.

More than 2,000 boats have sunk or been beaten to pieces by the waves where the river’s current smashes into the Pacific. Hundreds of lives have been lost here and at nearby bar crossings.

“This is what we do. We are fishermen. We go out there, we risk our lives so people can eat. And I take a lot of pride in that,” said Jonathan Miles, or “red beard,” a deckhand for the fishing vessel Carmillo. “The money we invest and get back from this is how we put food on our tables. This is how we feed our families. I don’t work in a factory. I don’t work for Amazon. I don’t work at a gas station. We spend our time and our money to get all this gear ready with the hopes to go out there and hit it big.”

After the fire burned the facility at the landing, just one fish-receiving facility remains in town.

“This place is critical to Dungeness,” Miles said. “Now we’re at half capacity. Our crab industry just took a huge hit with that fire.”

Prepping for the unknown

Since the fire, donations of gear and money poured into Ilwaco from fishers up and down the West Coast. But the work wasn’t quite done.

“We usually spend a month and a half on it; now, we’ve got to do it in six days,” said McKenzie, the Sunset Charge deckhand, last week after a 12-hour day prepping the new gear with lines, buoys and tags. “We had our time of mourning, and now we’ve got to get our big boy boots on, get back to work and crack jokes.”

Both the crews unaffected by the fire and those working to recover joined in the typical preseason hustle last Wednesday.

Jack Kaino repeatedly smacked a brick of frozen sardines on the counter inside Safe Coast Seafoods, the remaining fish-receiving facility. He and his fellow crew members from the Jeannie Irene broke up the blocks of silvery fish and stuffed them into bait cans for their pots.

Inside the Tradition, idling dockside, deckhands Donald Johnson and Odin Barnett microwaved hot dogs and threw together some packaged mashed potatoes on the stove after a long morning of prep.

Beeping forklifts and the roar of diesel trucks sounded through the hive of activity.

Longtime dock supervisor Angel Wirkkala orchestrated the chaos: the boats on deck to have their gear hoisted onboard and deliveries of frozen bait and additional pots. This facility processed about 3.3 million pounds of Dungeness last year, or a little more than 10% of the state’s total nontreaty commercial harvest.

This year, she said, they’ve volunteered to load an additional 3,000 to 5,000 pots on boats that typically would’ve loaded up at the landing that burned. Some of the boats that may have delivered crab there will now be delivering here, while others will deliver in Astoria, Ore., or Westport, adding some travel time to their typical journey.

“I’m getting a little nervous now, honestly,” she said. “But I’m really amazed with the way these guys come together. These guys have all come together to help fellow fishermen salvage a season.”

Down the road, Pete Sawle, owner and skipper of the Rocky B was throwing ropes over the top of mountains of crab pots, securing them on his trailer.

“It’s probably the worst time in history for commercial fishing across the board,” he said. “Salmon prices are terrible. Everything’s in the tank,” he added, including black cod and tuna.

Regarding Dungeness, for this coast, he said, nobody can survive without it if it’s part of their business plan.

When the Sojourn, which ties up in the slip next to Sawle, lost about 700 pots in the fire, he started loading up his 154 excess crab pots.

“You can’t help everybody, but everybody that you can help makes that much more available for the one down the line,” Sawle said.

A GoFundMe to help fishers recoup the costs of new gear had raised more than $100,000 by Saturday. And some crews, like the Sunset Charge, had already loaded their replacement gear on their boats by Friday night. The Sunset Charge had rebuilt their pots in just 72 hours, said McKenzie, the deckhand.

The Sunset Charge crew received help from about 30 people over the course of four days. “Thank you to everybody that helped me. We never would’ve (expletive) made it. I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Estrella said.

Aboard the Judy S Wednesday, deckhand Ananaiasa Koroi was putting the finishing touches on the boat. Koroi grew up long-line fishing in Fiji. He can’t imagine any other job and was getting excited for his first Dungeness opener.

The owners of the vessel, Bill Rehmke and Jim Kenney, had just retrofitted the tuna boat for its first year of crabbing for about $175,000. They lost about a third of their pots in the fire.

“We’ve been working nonstop since the end of September,” Rehmke said. “In my mind, I thought we were on Easy Street, and we’re just going to load up the pots and go fishing. This is adding more logistics to the situation. But, you know, the community has really come together; the resources are there, the gear is showing up.

“This community always rallies behind the fishermen.”