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Crabbing On The Coquille River

June 9th, 2012 by Alison · No Comments · food & drink, Oregon, sustainability

“Good-looking crabs,” I said to the three women on the dock in Bandon, Oregon the night before last. It was past 8:30

Bandon Oregon Harbor

but still light out, so close to the solstice. They had just pulled the black cage out of the water, and four disgruntled Dungeness crabs were now captives.  “Do you sell them?” I asked.

“We eat them!” the dark-haired, middle-aged woman replied. “We can go through 15 crabs in one meal. We’ve got teenaged boys.”

“Oh! Teenaged boys!” I nodded knowingly, not because I have them, but because I’ve fed them. “Does everyone shell their own?”

The pretty woman of about 20 smiled. “We’re better at it, so we just do it. If the boys did it, it would take all night.” We all smiled and joked about how males seem better at eating food than preparing it. Then I learned that a raw turkey leg inside the cage is the best bait, because the seals will leave it alone, whereas dead fish can lead them to tear the cage apart. Seals and sea lions are protected species. “You can’t even irritate a seal. There’s one right now,” the pretty girl nodded. Twenty feet from us, a dark, sleek head sliced quietly through the dark, sleek water, and then went under. I watched with pleasure, even knowing it could be a crab-stealer. We’ve all got to eat.

“So few people know how to grow or catch their own food,” I said. “It’s great that you do.”  Lots of us can grow tomatoes, including me (I lovingly call them idiot-proof), but the protein foods with enough calories to really sustain us are not so easy. I’ve raised four chickens, and while the egg harvest was fantastic in summer, it ceased altogether come a cold February. That was when I gave the chickens away to folks more experienced than myself.  I was a fickle farmer. But of course, just a few generations back, almost everyone did some farming, and farther back, everyone farmed or hunted and gathered. Our current culture of convenient, abundant food is a blip in human history.

“When crabs lose a leg, they grow it back,” the lead crabber told me. “Look, this one is missing two legs. And she lost this front pincher, but the new one is already half grown in. The pincher comes first, and then the length.” It was true. The crab was a poster child for crab disabilities, but had no ADA requirements  to support her quality of life. Still, she was alive and kicking.

“Here in the river, they don’t grow half as big as they do in the ocean,” I was told. I had actually thought that this was the ocean, but she was clear this was the Coquille River. (It’s pronounced coh-KEEL, as is the town of Coquille, but the Indian tribe, I learned from a tribal elder, is pronounced coh-KELL, with a short ‘e’. A Coquille tribal elder had told me earlier in the day that the former is how the French said the Indian word for eels, and their pronunciation stuck concerning the town and the river. But the Coquille tribe has retained their original coh-KELL pronunciation).

The sky was darkening, and we realized it was time to say good night. The older woman, the lead crabber, tossed the diversely-legged crab back into the dark water of the Coquille-flowing-into-the-sea. “What are you doing?” I said.

“Oh, it’s a female. They lay the eggs, and it only takes one male to fertilize thousands of eggs. So we put all the females back, and just eat the males.”

“Aren’t any of these four males?” I said, feeling a little anxious for all their hard work at crabbing and the ravenous boys back home.

But the telltale wide, ridged triangle was at the bottom of the bellies of all four crabs. The women calmly tossed them into the water. I was amazed by their patience, their willingness to throw back their catch, but kept that thought to myself, because I didn’t want to seem like a landlubber, city-slicker crab groupie. The women felt normal to themselves, just like everyone feels normal to themselves. Compliments are good, but sometimes they can create a chasm, so I just thanked them for telling me about crabbing. They said it had been fun.

After saying good-night to the clever crabbers, I walked to the end of the dock, curious now about the river water that seemed like ocean water. I cupped some of the dark, cold stuff into my hand, then into my mouth. Brackish, as in salty, but not intensely salty, as ocean water would be. In-between water. Estuary water. I reflected that the Bandon crabbers had not used the word sustainability, but they were practicing it, both in putting all the female crabs back to lay more eggs, and in knowing how to sustain themselves with good, caloric food if there’s ever a collapse of any kind. I walked back to my room in the peaceful dark. We’re living in a kind of estuary of abundant, convenient food. But this is only an in-between time. We need to keep old knowledge alive for the future. Crabbers and others who grow, hunt and gather food are doing it.

photos courtesy of  mag3737 and Maureen ‘Mo’ Reilly

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