The dangers, rewards of crabbing

Kyle and Amber Novelli catch and measure crab from their crabbing boat The Aquarius. The two run Novelli’s Crab and Seafood off the docks of the Port of Siuslaw in Florence, Ore.

Crabbing in Oregon brings Florence’s Novelli family together

Aug. 3, 2019 — Down the dock from ICM Restaurant in Historic Old Town Florence is a metal gate that leads down to the boats on the water. In a little blue boathouse on the left of the dock is Novelli’s Crab and Seafood, owned and run by Amber Novelli and her husband Kyle — the only active commercial crabbers and fishermen who live and work in Florence.

It’s about 8:40 a.m. when Amber and Kyle hop onto their turquoise crabbing boat called The Aquarius and head downriver to the fuel station, which resembles a typical gas station, except for its location on the end of a dock. Today, they are going out to check about a quarter of their 200 crab pots.

“The weather runs your whole life. The wind and the swell, it’s never the rain or snow. Always the wind and swell in the ocean,” Amber says.

Today it’s sunny — a great day for crabbing, and there’s hardly any wind so far. They go out in the morning because, as the day goes on, the wind picks up, making getting out past the bar near the jetty tip more difficult.

Florence is unique for a coastal town in that boats have to go five miles down the river until they finally reach the ocean.

“The bar here is the worst bar I’ve ever experienced,” says Amber, talking about the point where the river meets the ocean. On bad days it can be really dangerous for boats to get past the bar to the ocean. “A majority of the boating accidents out here happen at the jetty tip, not out in the ocean,” she adds.

The rough waves at the bar can turn boats sideways and the cold waters don’t allow for survivors to swim to safety, not to mention the waves threatening to throw swimmers into nearby rocks. “It can be really dangerous out here,” Amber says of Dungeness crabbing which, along with being the main type of crabbing in Oregon, has also been named one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.

Crabbing comes with uncertainty every day. Amber says the ocean can be calm one minute, and dangerously rocky the next, “We’ve been out before where I didn’t know if we were going to make it back in.”

So why continue to crab with so much uncertainty and danger? For the Novellis, it’s what brought their family together — and continues to fulfill Amber through running Novelli’s Crab and Seafood.

Dungeness crab, the kind of crab Amber and Kyle catch, makes the most revenue for Oregon out of all commercially fished marine life. Only five counties in Oregon — Clatsop, Lincoln, Coos, Curry and Tillamook— account for 96 percent of total commercial fishing employment. Yet Oregon is the top producer worldwide for Dungeness crab, according to commercialfishing.org.

Dungeness crab is integral to Oregon’s fishing industry, and even though it comes with risks, Amber and Kyle continue to devote their lives to bringing the crab to the Florence community.

“It’s kind of funny to have your goal in life be to bring people fresh fish,” Amber says.

In the past, Kyle was a carpenter by profession. He always loved to fish but didn’t know how to make it a sustainable career. “I told him ‘If you love to fish and you can make money doing this, then let’s do it!’ He said yes, and so we did it,” says Amber.

The Novellis bought a truck with an overhead camper and a small pull-behind, dory-like boat and together started going up and down the Oregon coast fishing. During this time they lived in Newport. “We did really good our first year there, so we traded that boat in and got The Midnight,” Amber says. But it was on a trip about seven years ago with their friends that they discovered crabbing.

“They needed a baiter so I volunteered. I had never even touched a crab,” Amber says. After that trip, they bought The Aquarius, which is their current crabbing boat. When they saw a houseboat for sale in Florence, they decided to take a chance. “We saw [Novelli’s] for sale and we were like ‘let’s make them come to us,’” Amber said.

Up to then, she and Kyle had been driving their catch to Bend, Ore., where they had set up a customer base to sell their fish. However, fishing out of Newport and Coos Bay then loading the truck and driving to Bend to sell to everyone was beginning to be exhausting.

“I’ll never forget the very first day that we opened here in Florence. Mike Bones came down in his outfit from the casino and he had a group with him and they were just so welcoming. The whole town just started coming down and it was all these nice, nice people!” Amber recalls. “It’s like having a house on the water where everyone just comes to visit and it’s like everyone ends up turning into your personal friend.

“The people here are just the nicest I’ve ever met.”

Crabbing has continued to bring the Novelli family together. “It means a lot as a parent to have your kids be proud of what you do,” Amber says. “When they come to help, they have these proud smiles on their face as they’re selling our crab.”

Amber and Kyle opened Novelli’s in 2014 and, two years later, Amber entered the Florence Area Chamber of Commerce’s chowder contest.

“The first two years we were just selling whatever fish Kyle caught and I was playing around with the soup. And that just became a world of its own. I had been playing around with a crab bisque recipe. Then I decided to add potatoes and someone said that it wasn’t bisque anymore, it was chowder — so I went with that,” Amber adds.

Her crab chowder won two years of the chamber’s chowder festival in October and, since then, has become important for Novelli’s to sustain them through the crabbing season closures.

Crabbing season begins Dec. 1 and continues until August. Amber keeps Novelli’s open during the months in between to sell chowder and the fish Kyle catches. They also do bay crabbing, which starts in September. But it’s still not enough to sustain them sometimes.

“I remember the last couple years the crabbing season got postponed almost until January or February. And by then ... everyone’s dead broke because you have no income,” Amber says. “You get to the point where you ask the Salvation Army to help with your electricity so it devastates all of us. It’s something you just can’t get away from. Everyone’s waiting for Dec. 1, then it gets postponed. So fishermen have probably the worst Christmases ever.”

This is another obstacle crabbers face in the crabbing industry. Aside from the dangerous ocean conditions they encounter, crabbers have to deal with the bio toxin domoic acid. This toxin is produced by a type of algae called Pseudo-nitzschia australis, and the toxin accumulates in small fish and shellfish, like crab.

Currently, researchers are studying what triggers algae to produce domoic acid. The bio toxin can make humans very sick if a person eats the affected shellfish, which is why it has delayed the start of crabbing season annually throughout various parts of the Oregon coast over the past four years. This year’s 2018-19 crabbing season was delayed until Jan. 15 from the Columbia area to Cape Arago — with Florence situated between the two — due to domoic acid, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Inside Novelli’s there is a large blue tank where Amber keeps her crab, but it’s only so big. The couple brings in enough crab to fill up the tank, but her crab pots have to stay out in the ocean where the crab can survive. If the river had more saltwater, then she could drop the crab pots right outside her restaurant.

“That’s the other part of why I’m closed during the winter. Because my pump is out there. If there’s a lot of rain I get way too much fresh water. It’s brackish enough to keep my crabs alive for the short time that they’re in [the tank], but if I get a lot of rain during the winter, it would just kill them because [the water] would be too fresh,” Amber says. “That’s what makes crabbing a little bit harder here.”

Florence and the Port of Siuslaw aren’t conducive to commercial fishing, but in a world of the commercialized food industry, Amber and Kyle want to help the community to take advantage of living on the coast with the option for fresh-caught seafood.

“It’s hard having a business model where I can’t guarantee the species of fish, I can’t tell when I’ll have them or how many I’ll have, or if there will be any at all,” Amber says. “The only thing I can guarantee is that it will be fresh.”

The Novellis are currently building a dock next to Novelli’s for additional seating, and Amber hopes to expand her fish case as well. They used to sell the fish Kyle caught to large vendors, such as Pacific Seafood, that freezes the fish to sell to restaurants, but now she is trying to keep her business completely in Florence — so the community can feel confident in their money supporting local fishermen.

“It’s hard to get rid of your fish if you’re competing with prices in Newport. I’m trying not to have to sell to Pacific. I want to be able to sell directly to the people of Florence,” says Amber. “The whole reason we are lowering prices is so we can be 100 percent Florence.”

This is why Amber is going to start selling the fish they catch at wholesale prices.

Since moving to Florence, Amber says she’s found a supportive community like no other, and she wants to continue helping other local fishermen in Oregon by buying their fish when she and Kyle don’t catch any. They plan to keep Novelli’s open during the fall when crabbing season is closed by selling their own fish at wholesale prices, along with fish from trusted fishermen she knows along the Oregon coast.

Back on The Aquarius, Amber and Kyle have finally reached their buoys, which are painted hot pink and white. Kyle uses a long handle with a hook to catch and pull in the buoys and grab the attached rope. He runs the rope through a silver contraption called a block that is attached to a giant arm that swings out from the side of The Aquarius.

The block strings the rope through and pulls the crab cage up from the depths below. Kyle grabs the cage, opens it and starts sorting the crab, throwing female and smaller crab back into the ocean. He resets the bait then throws the cage back into the water, ready for the next one. Each pot takes him less than two minutes to tend.

“It’s all about timing,” Amber says, driving the boat while Kyle retrieves the crab pots. Since it’s towards the end of the season, there are less crab than normal.

“It’s frustrating getting out here and there’s no crab. Fishermen need a lot of patience,” Amber says. But it’s something they can do as a family.

“I love crabbing because it’s fast-paced and we all work together,” Kyle adds.

“We work shoulder to shoulder out here. It’s a family thing,” Amber says. “I’m hooked and I can’t leave.”

Visit Novelli’s Crab and Seafood Facebook page for updates on fresh fish and crab in stock.

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