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San Francisco Crabbers Fighting To Save Livelihoods After Destructive Pier 45 Fire

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- In May, a massive fire at San Francisco's Pier 45 destroyed a warehouse holding the fishing gear for half the city's crab fleet. Now, even as debris is being removed, fishermen are scrambling to save their livelihoods.

Crab boat owner John Barnett on Monday was in the process of painting 500 buoys hanging in long lines stretched out on his Sonoma County property. They all have to be painted with identifying colors to create 250 new crab pots for the upcoming season. Then ropes must be cut and bait containers loaded into each pot. But Barnett actually lost 650 pots in the fire, every bit of gear for his two crab boats.

"I got down there and pretty much at that point, knew it was a bad deal," he said.

The Post of San Francisco will begin demolishing what's left of Pier 45 this week but its losses were covered by insurance. The fishermen's gear was not. So those that want to stay in the game are rushing to buy new traps, and they all have to be custom made to precisely fit individual boats.

"You want them all the same because if one is smaller than the other they don't stack," Barnett said.

His 250 new crab cages cost about $40,000. Each trap is about $240, fully equipped, and manufacturers require up to half that amount upfront. Many fishermen can't afford that so the port is creating a no-interest loan program to pay $100 toward each new pot, with five years to pay it back. So, how beneficial will that be to crabbers who lost their gear?

"Extremely," Barnett said. "I mean, this is either going to make or break probably half the people, at least, that lost everything in that shed."

Barnett says the losses won't affect the availability of crab for the consumer; there will always be other boats waiting to make the catch. But the season begins in November and many are out right now catching salmon. So, there will be little time to do all the work required to set up brand new crab traps.

"They can start looking for used gear. A lot of them don't even have the finances to purchase used gear," Barnett said.

Which means a lot of them are already out of the crab business. "Yeah," he said, "I don't know what they're gonna do."

The loan program was discussed at the Port Commission's meeting on July 14. But Barnett says the fishermen have not heard anything since then, and time is running short if they expect to be part of the upcoming crab season.  Barnett figures he will still lose money, dropping from 650 to only 250 pots. But he needs to do something to keep busy, especially since COVID-19 wiped out his sightseeing boat business as well. It's just one more surprise served up by the year 2020.

"Yeah, yeah ... add it to the list," he said.


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