Safe crabbing

Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela Boehland.

On the bobbing docks of Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco, Coast Guard Auxiliarists walk from crab boat to crab boat calling out, “Ahoy, Skipper!  Do you need a safety check?”  The boats, with names like King Crab, Sea Fox and Sea Roamer, range in size from 30 to 60 feet.  San Francisco crabbers will be among the first in California to throw their pots in the water as fishery season is set to open on Nov. 15.

Coast Guard Auxiliarists walk the docks of Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco offering a free, safety examination to a crab fisherman prior to the start of crab season, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela J. Boehland

Seventeen Auxiliarists, two civilians, and seven uniformed Coast Guard members spent last week conducting free, mandatory safety checks on boats throughout Northern California as part of the Coast Guard’s safety initiative known as Operation Safe Crab. Crabbing is listed by the Department of Labor as one of the most dangerous jobs in America and the Coast Guard utilizes the Auxiliary, an all volunteer civilian branch of the service, to reach out to and educate fishermen about the inherent risks associated with the job.

During these dock side examinations they ensure the lights, sound signals and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons work properly, and that there is a life raft and survival suits for the entire crew.  Additionally, they conduct training on the equipment’s usage and emergency procedures.  Last week they covered more than 600 miles of coast line, walking the docks in nine ports from Monterey to Crescent City.

Manny Ramirez, a retired Coast Guard member, is in charge of organizing the Auxiliary force for Safe Crab.  He said the Coast Guard started conducting the voluntary exams 20 years ago, but this was the first year they became mandatory for crabbers operating more than 3 miles offshore.

“Our goal is to get the fishery off to safe start,” said Ramirez. “We hope that they catch a lot of crab, but we also want them to come home.”

Ramirez said that fishing crews battle fatigue and injury as they work long hours hauling and baiting crab pots. They also risk capsizing and sinking as they overload decks with heavy pots.

“Operation Safe Crab is about putting safety in fishermen’s minds and preventing accidents before they happen,” said Ramirez. He estimates that the Coast Guard responds to between 60 and 80 search and rescues a year involving fishermen, including crabbers, and he wants to reduce that.

Chester Bartalini, a Coast Guard Auxiliarist, inspects an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon aboard the Kendra Jean, a crab vessel moored to the dock at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela J. Boehland

The California crab fleet is made up of less than 1,400 vessels and most are operated by two or three man crews. Last year, the Auxiliary reached more than 250 boats and issued decals to crabbers who met all of the federal safety standards. The decals are valid for two years; without one, crabbers face a higher risk of being boarded by Coast Guard law enforcement crews. That translates to less time fishing and money lost. This year is poised to be a lucrative season.

Ramirez said most fishermen appreciate the efforts of the Coast Guard.

“We don’t ask them to put anything arbitrary on their boats; it’s all stuff that will keep them alive and help us find them if they are lost,” he said.

Safe Crab only occurs at the start of crabbing season.  However, the Coast Guard is always looking to prevent accidents before they start.  Knowledge and preparedness are proven powerful tools to protect life at sea.

The more prepared they are, the more likely they will return with pots full of spidery-red crustaceans.

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