Risk-Heavy Crab Fishery Pays Off For Tribal Fishermen

LAPUSH (March 25, 2005) — A full moon gives way to the pink skies of dawn as John Schumack’s boat Seeker leaves LaPush for Dungeness crab grounds on the Pacific Ocean. Early morning serenity is short-lived, however. The Quillayute River bar is one of the most dangerous entrances on the Pacific coast and must be negotiated in the first minutes of the day.

“If anything bad is going to happen to you, it’s going to happen right here,” said Zach Cleveland, a Quileute tribal member who helps crew Schumack’s boat.

The 9-foot swell at LaPush this day is nearing the maximum height Schumack is willing to risk crossing. The boat rocks crazily from the waves that come not only straight on, but sideways as they bounce off James Island, a large sea stack at the mouth. The return home can be even trickier, requiring perfect timing to hit a relative lull in sets of incoming swells.

This chaotic bar has claimed many lives, including three U.S. Coast Guard members during a rescue in 25-foot sea in 1997. Seven fishermen from The Gambler perished in 1990. “You can’t ever take the danger for granted,” said Schumack, as the boat settled into a more familiar rise and fall after clearing the bar. “I know it’s going to be fine once we get out there, but the crossing conditions can mean you don’t go even if the weather is good out at sea.”

Tribal and non-tribal crab fishermen deal with these hazards on the Olympic coast in pursuit of one of the most lucrative fisheries available to them. The state commercial crab season nets more than 20 million pounds valued at nearly $1 billion, with the preponderance of catch and profit going to 311 non-tribal fishermen. But, this season, Quileute and Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) tribal fishermen landed more than 1.4 million and 2.7 million pounds respectively; record landings for both.

“The first couple of weeks of this season, it was just phenomenal,” said skipper Schumack. “Everyone’s pots were full and the weather cooperated for a bit.” Last year’s landings were also high, allowing fishermen to add new gear, and in some cases, a new boat. The improvement in gear improved fishing ability overall. “It shows that we can bring it in if we have the opportunity,” said Schumack. Inconsistent crab abundance in the Neah Bay area makes the crab fishery less significant for the Makah Tribe. The Hoh Tribe plans to participate in the future.

QIN fishermen contend with a dangerous crossing out of Westport, but also enjoyed an early good weather window. “Our fleet hasn’t really grown that much, it’s still pretty much 14 or 15 boats, but several fishermen have upgraded their equipment and it shows in improved landings,” said Joe Schumacker, fisheries operations section manager for QIN. “The fishermen had to do a lot of sorting early on because of inconsistent crab condition down here, but the work paid off with a great season.”


For more information, contact: Debbie Ross-Preston, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 374-5501.