Next Wave Crabber

Crabber Bob Eder is part of a $45 million annual industry in oregon that relies on old-fashioned hunting and gathering.

For more than three decades, Bob Eder has tracked the patterns of crabs.

From where the youngest ones congregated during the previous season to how the weather and currents affect their migration, Eder has tuned his intuition like radar to find the choice spots for the 500 crab pots he places 20,000 times throughout the season.

Considered by his peers to be one of the Oregon Coast’s top crabbers, Eder does not fit the profession’s crusty caricature. Originally from Southern California, he became, at 21, one of an increasingly rare breed—a first-generation fisher. At 59, tan and youthful in his Tevas, T-shirt, and button-down shirt, he’s at once pensive and playful as he struggles to find words to describe his love for capturing crustaceans. Fishing, he explains, is a way to connect to the world. “It’s powerful and humbling to pull up traps full of life. I’ve pulled up hundreds of thousands of pots, and it never ceases to move me.”

To make that connection, he’s faced hair-raising waves crashing broadside into his boat and fetched far-flung crab pots carried miles by winter storms. As he recounts his adventures, it’s instantly evident why Eder is such a good fisherman. He’s unflappable. As he speaks calmly and deliberately, pausing to carefully organize his thoughts, his eyes rarely stray from the harbor he calls home. The last of the hunter-gatherers, fishermen like Eder have long been the primary harvesters of ocean resources in Oregon. Crabbing is king: the most competitive, and, at $45 million in value last season, the most lucrative single-species fishery in the state. Eder has his favorite spots. So do the other 427 crab permit holders working the coast who, each year, drop a total of 112,000 pots into sandy-bottom stretches along the 363-mile Oregon shoreline.

Sitting in the sunshine on the deck of the Coffee House overlooking Newport’s Yaquina Bay, Eder explains that, to him, the hard-won knowledge of the best pot locations is as proprietary as BP’s geological reconnaissance for oil. “It is intellectual property,” he stresses, “albeit some may consider it a primitive form.” Yet he and many of his cohorts recently gave up their locations in an attempt to make peace with a soon-to-arrive neighbor: wave energy buoys. “We had the run of the range for a long time—that’s changing,” says Eder of the invader. “For lack of a better analogy, we are like the Native Americans watching the wagon trains coming into the valley.”

This spring, the New Jersey–based Ocean Power Technologies will anchor a massive 200-ton, 80-foot-tall, 40-foot-wide test buoy just off the coast north of Reedsport—smack in the middle of some of Oregon’s most productive crab grounds. If successful, the buoy could be followed by hundreds more in the form of large-scale wave farms that could hamper more than just crabbers. Whales could potentially collide with buoys or cables. Electromagnetic waves could disrupt fish or mammal navigation. And, if surf-powered devices like the 60-foot-tall mechanical oyster made by the Scotland-based start-up Aquamarine Power pursue a stake in Oregon, surfers may find fewer spots to ride the swells.

But rather than fight, Eder and many other Oregon fishers—along with a wide coalition of federal biologists, conservationists, and surfers—are now at the table trying to make what might be a bitter turf war into a radical experiment: applying the principles of the Oregon land use system to the ocean. It’s called marine spatial planning, and Oregon is one of only two states trying to comprehensively divide the sea into specific uses.