Whims of Winter

By Michael Kew

Crab boat, southern Oregon, January 2016. Photo: Kew.

"THEY MIGHT AS WELL stick me into the gas chamber, because they’ve already taken my fuckin’ life away.”

Scowling, Donnie squirts the deck of his fiberglass skiff with a garden hose, washing away the mud, sand, seaweed scraps, and baby starfish—residues from another day at sea, combing the fathoms and sinking lines. Squatting in his homemade boat next to Donnie’s, Bill lifts Dungeness crabs, one-by-one, from his boat box and sets them into a five-gallon bucket of saltwater. The crabs are still alive and clawing, drawn from deep water a mile or two offshore.

The men are spent. Long hours exhausted for subsistence, a thankless task almost extinct along this isolated fetch of coast.

“A lawyer was down here yesterday,” Donnie says through his woolly, Irish-orange beard. “I showed him all the paperwork. He just looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re screwed!’”

“There’s guys up on the hill that still have salmon boats,” Bill says. “Keepin’ their permits, just hopin’ they can go back to fishin’ someday, but—”

“Prayin’ that this insanity goes away,” Donnie bellows, shaking his head. “Those big dragnetters are the real problem. They control it, they make the legislation, they make the laws that control themselves, and they’re runnin’ us outta business doin’ it.”

Donnie and Bill’s humble hook-and-line method elicits the least environmental impact out of all levels of commercial fishing, a glaring irony considering the men endure the stiffest quota cutbacks. Previous monthly allotment for 6,000 pounds of yellowtail now limited to just 200. Salmon fishing restricted to September, when there are few salmon here. Crab limits decimated. Bottom fish quotas severed, then again. And again.

“If you added up all the species they say we could have,” Donnie continues, “there’d be thousands of pounds, but it’s not all stuff that we use. It’s not all stuff we have access to."

Like loggers and miners, commercial fishermen lie at the mercy of know-it-all bureaucrats and whims of nature.

“We’ve got just enough crab to keep us goin’ this year,” Bill says, “but every year, you go through the doldrums and the disappointment of not makin’ enough money, and you think about getting out of it and you try thinkin’ about doin’ somethin’ that would be better, you know?”

Shit, he says—times have changed.

“Lots of times, I don’t want to go out and fish. Once you start letting yourself talk yourself out of going, it just gets easier and easier to find reasons not to go.”

Donnie leaves, leaving Bill to tinker with his boat alone in the forlorn marina.

“All you can do is sit around and bitch about it, waitin’ until they take it all." He shrugs. “Just wearin’ us down, you know? I’m gonna quit here one of these days, but not until I have to. I don’t really know much else, but I’ll find something...."


(Originally written in 2000.)

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