As crabbers crowd the mouth of the Columbia River and jockey for their catch, the Coast Guard soars above, ensuring some order to the fray.
On some days during crab season, a four-member Coast Guard crew flies a C-27 plane north from Air Station Sacramento to help patrol crab boats off the Oregon and Washington state coasts. The plane flew along the coast Thursday for more than two hours, as far south as Oceanside and up north to Grays Harbor, a span of over 100 miles.
The crew and a local marine enforcement specialist from Air Station Astoria spotted roughly 100 vessels, about 80 of which were concentrated within 40 miles of the mouth of the river.
“With such a large fleet in a small area, there’s not a lot of margin for error there,” 3rd Class Maritime Enforcement Specialist Matthew Young said.
Besides aiding an occasional search-and-rescue operation, the crew’s main objective is to keep track of crab boats and provide an aerial perspective — anywhere from 500 feet to 1,500 feet above the water — of crabbing. Their observations are relayed to Coast Guard vessels and state regulators, who then may be better able to focus patrols.
“We mostly do most of the pointing out and say, ‘You’ve got to go here,’” 1st Class Aviation Maintenance Technician Chris Porter said.
The crew’s visits are mainly concentrated at the beginning of crab season, when many of the valuable crustaceans are caught. Crab boats typically shift their attention every few days when returns begin to dwindle.
“It’s pretty random,” Young said.
Not as random was the timing of this year’s crab season opening. Low meat yields and price negotiations stalled the start of the season, which was scheduled to begin Dec. 1, until Jan. 22.
“There’s a difference year to year,” Young said. “It seems like they’re having a good season.”
The C-27 replaced the C-130 as the preferred aircraft for crab season flyovers a couple of years ago. After they sat idle in an Air Force hangar for five years, the Coast Guard purchased 14 of them. Air Station Sacramento — the only air station with fixed-wing aircraft on the mainland West Coast — houses six of the planes. The new toys come with perks and drawbacks.
“It allows us to fly at low elevations, but we have to be more careful about how offshore we go,” said Lt. Cmdr. G.B. Cathey, the pilot.
Cathey and his partner in the cockpit — Lt. Cmdr. Peter Igoe — recalled days out on the water in Coast Guard vessels, but they were in their element in the air on Thursday.
“I remember standing on a boat during a fishery, looking up at a patrol plane and saying, ‘That is where I want to be,’” Cathey said. “And here we are today.”