Crab Fishermen In Newport Battle the Elements

NEWPORT, Ore. -- This is a place where forecasting storms isn't just convenience -- it could be a matter of life and death.

Battling fierce winter storms on the open water is just another day on the job for most fishermen living off the Oregon coast during crab season, and some crews are gaining national attention for their work. We met up with the Newport crew of the Winona J and the Excalibur, who are featured in the Discovery show Deadliest Catch Dungeon Cove.

"We've been fishing fulltime for 16 years, and I've seen some hairy scenarios. It's not that we were pushing the limits. Freak things, rogue waves hit, it was pretty scary," says Chris Retherford, captain of the Excalibur.

Chris and his brother, Mike Retherford, make their living off the harvest of the Pacific ocean. They trawl and fish for shrimp through the year, but sometimes Mother Nature won't give up her bounty without a fight.

"Weather has a huge affect on our industry, it really does," says Chris.

The state gives the go ahead for crab season which starts Dec. 1, about the same time some of the fiercest winter storms are forming in the Pacific.

"You're competing," Chris says. "There's only so much crab on the ground, and the first guy to get them wins."

Fishermen push the limits in order to come home with the largest catch, saying that 90 percent of the production occurs in the first four months. Because they are out on the water for five days at a time our job of forecasting the weather plays such a pivotal role in this profession. Chris and Mike check the weather up to four times daily, doing their best to stay out of nature's worst.

"If they've changed it, that'll determing your fishing strategy. When to move pots, when to move gear. Weather has a huge affect on our industry, it really does," Mike, captain of the Winona J, says.

"It's not just wind that plays a factor, it's the swell as well. So you're watching the wind, the waves, the swell, and it's just a combination," adds Chris.

Fishermen make their living off the Oregon coast with each catch, and that is why it is so important that they have a sturdy vessel like the Winona  J. These ships have to withstand 50-knot gusts, ocean swells of 25 feet, and driving rains. There is a limit of what they can withstand, however, and that's what makes forecasting these intense storms that much more important.

Chris tells us, "It's not so much the winds, it's the wave height. The wave height affects you."

Every time the team heads out they check the weather, and if it's good they head towards the bar. If a storm is approaching, the Retherfords check the wave heights. This information is given by buoys, put in place by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and can be found on NOAA's website. 

"That determines how much time I can get through my gear, get work done," Chris said. "Boom. I need to make sure I'm in before that time."

Sometimes they don't make it, and must ride the storm out.

"We stayed out in two pretty good blows," Chris tells us. "I think the biggest we saw last year was 25 feet with 50 knots of wind, which at that point I pulled the guys off the deck."

Forecasting Pacific storms can be difficult due to the lack of data, because the Pacific is huge. Storms move from west to east along the jet stream. For most meteorologists, this is not a problem, as the storm has been well sampled before arriving in their location. There are numerous sites on land that observe various components of the storm. Out in the oceans, there are not as many. For people living along the west coast, there is a component of the unknown.

"A lot of times, the coast guard won't call you, they don't run our boats. They don't call you and say, 'Hey, you need to come in.' That's all on your judgment. And we've rode out some pretty nasty storms over the years."

The risk is not only felt on the water.

"We're a family business," Chris continues, "and we have families that work for us."

A way of life, a livelihood, and thanks to advanced forecasting technology, the Retherfords can navigate Mother Nature's fury with a little more peace of mind.