After fire, crabbers come together
February 1, 2024
In the days after a devastating fire ravaged gear for eight local fishing vessels, the coastal and commercial fishing communities rallied to replace line, pots and buoys while restoring hope ahead of the commercial crab season.
"The outpouring of love of the people that helped get the fleet back to fishing shape was simply like nothing I've ever seen before," said Dale Beasley, president of the Lower Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association. "The local community support has been fantastic! Absolutely heart warming."
Fire investigators wrapped up their investigation into the fire's cause on Jan. 27, but have not publicly announced their findings. A final cost estimate has not been determined, but the fire resulted in a total loss. Drone footage of the site shows blackened crab pots on a skeleton dock and debris where buildings once stood.
Investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are writing the final origin and cause report. Once the report is complete, the findings will be given to the Ilwaco Fire Department.
Bad news gets better
Eight vessels, including the F/V Sunset Charge, F/V Brandy, F/V Rigorous, F/V Judy S, F/V Sojurn, F/V Miss Pacific, F/V Iron Clad and the F/V Nordic Fox, lost an estimated combined 3,800 crab pots in the fire last Monday, only to be replaced and ready to go in time for dump day less than a week later.
"Once I saw it catch fire, I just assumed they were all gone," said Bill Rehmke of F/V Judy S, who had 300 pots on the landing in preparation for their first commercial crab season when the fire broke out around 11:20 a.m. Monday, Jan. 22, at Bornstein Seafoods' Ilwaco Landing facility.
Rehmke, 48, of Chinook, was among the few fortunate fishermen who were able to salvage some of their gear, he said, adding that it was on the tip of the landing and was only spared total destruction due to the direction of the wind that day.
"For us, we've got extra buoys, we've got extra rope. We're going to have to buy some materials to get us back going, but in the gist of things we got out fairly easy," he said.
Rehmke has been "amazed" by the rapid and generous response from the local community and fellow fishermen.
"We had a meeting [last Thursday] with Bornstein's and a lot of these guys had gear within 12-18 hours-which I found amazing, just the way the fishing community and community here came together. They had resources almost immediately," he said.
The response from other crabbers and support from the local community generated widespread regional news coverage in Seattle and Portland.
Gear to the rescue
In the days following the fire, gear sheds across the Lower Columbia region rallied in support of the impacted crabbers.
Beasley, the crab association leader, said "I've been very busy making sure our fishing fleet got crab gear and all requirements to keep them from getting sideways with the regulations since most legal requirements could not be met in a week. Crab buoys are very problematic to obtain. All supplies are in short supply. Required pot tagging was lost in the fire and non-replaceable due to individual pot identifiers. Both WDFW and OWFW suspended most requirements for the injured vessels. It's fantastic or this could not have ended well. This tragedy is not going away anytime soon - this may take years to recover."
"We're typically a competitive bunch," conceded Zeke Estrella of the F/V Sunset Charge, who was busy with crew and volunteers helping prep pots in an Ilwaco gear shed on Friday. More than 20 volunteers showed up to offer assistance in the days following the fire, Estrella said.
Commercial fishermen, including those not directly impacted by the fire, could sympathize with the despair felt losing gear only days before the opener.
Volunteers from several vessels helped rig and prep thousands of pots, including some destined for the F/V Pacific, F/V Sunset Charge and F/V Brandy.
"It was a lot of moving parts to make this all happen," said Mike Harmon, a commercial fishermen aboard the F/V Redeemer who assisted along with fellow crew.
Donations far and wide
Donations-primarily in the form of gear and supplies-poured in from commercial fishing communities including Newport, Astoria, Warrenton and Westport. In Chinook, a temporary gated fence served as a collection site for commercial crab fishing gear donations near the south end of the port.
"Both the fishing and local communities, this whole river basin, Astoria-Warrenton, Long Beach, Ilwaco-everyone has really come together," Rehmke summarized.
"This [fishing] community stepped up to get the crab fishermen back in business, absolutely amazing how community love poured out from people from central California to Neah Bay getting supplies to the injured fishermen. The community volunteered food, built sandwiches, biscuits and gravy for breakfast, chowder for dinner-effort led by Washington Trollers Association and Amy Sharp from Westport," Beasley said.
The processing plant's owner has responded well, Beasley noted.
"Bornstein's really stepped into action locating pots and getting semis on the road, and 3,700 pots were coming to those that lost it all in the fire in less than 24 hours."
At a meeting last week at the Port of Ilwaco with U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and state Sen. Jeff Wilson, Andrew Bornstein was the primary participant in beginning to find a pathway to rebuild the fish plant. Insurance, permits and logistics were all discussed in an attempt to shrink the timeframe for rebuilding Ilwaco Landing. Cleanup will begin as soon as authorities allow Bornstein back on their property.
"After the port meeting, Marie and Jeff went over to a local crab gear shed and witnessed first hand the recovery effort and were able to talk with some of the crew working on other people's gear that they had donated to the cause. That is a direct connection to the people working for others they will not soon forget," Beasley said.
Not all good
Fishing families that lost gear will be strapped for quite a while to come replacing the gear, with fully rigged pots costing $400 or more each, and they are not insurable.
Bornstein's insurance may take years to recover any dollars, while rebuilding will be problematic between the monetary cost and difficulty in obtaining federal and state permits.
"As this year starts, there will be unloading delays with the port being short two hoists for unloading," Beasley said. "This will cause a lot of lost sleep time and become problematic if fishing days are stacked together with good weather windows at the start of the season."
KMUN contributed to this report.