How the Newport Fishermen’s Wives Helped Replace Torched Gear & Raise Over $100K for Ilwaco Crab Fishermen

(Click above to hear the full interview!)

The Newport Fishermen’s Wives (NFW) are a few of the humble heroes of this story. Preserving the welfare of commercial fishing families has always been their mission, all in a day’s work. But helping to replace crab gear and raise over one hundred fourteen thousand dollars in less than a week – how did they do it? 

Community outreach from the coast of California to Washington.

“I think because we advocate so much, people feel like we do more than we do,” Taunette Dixon of the Newport Fishermen’s Wives said over Zoom. “We have a pretty good following, so when we hear about something, we instantly communicate.” She jokingly compared the NFW to the “Google of the fishing industry” due to the influx of phone calls she receives daily. “And I love it because I love to help people to the best of my ability.”

NFW currently has seven board members who connect through a group text chat at times like this to decide how to move forward while staying accountable to their mission: a non-profit corporation of fishermen’s wives, mothers, daughters, and friends, supporting a strong sense of community, helping to further the causes of industry, safety, seafood education, and family support.

 

Text thread between myself and Taunette Dixon of the Newport Fishermen’s Wives.

Although Ilwaco, WA, is five hours north of Newport, OR, their promise to further support commercial fishing families negated the boundaries of county and state lines. Dixon credits one NFW board member in particular. Cari Brandburg, a former crab broker, got on the phone with connections and crabbers she’s known for years, asking, Who do you know? Who’s handling this on that end? What can we do? What do you need from us? After a few leads, NFW posted to the group’s Facebook Page to connect with fishermen who could help with those who needed help.“I think everybody was doing that,” Dixon said. “I have never seen a response like this.” 

Even sport fishermen gave support — a considerable amount of it.

At the time of writing, a GoFundMe, initiated by the members of the Ilwaco Tuna Club, reached over $114,000 in just one week. The Ilwaco Tuna Club is comprised mainly of sport fishermen, tuna anglers to be exact, who have proven to live up to their purpose of creating support for offshore fishing and providing “logistics to enhance our offshore experience through group collaboration.” 

As commercial and sport fishermen seem to go head to head in fisheries worldwide, this display of compassion and action gives a sense of greater community to turn a foe into a friend. The money was raised so quickly that the ITC created a committee to help distribute the funds. A committee that commercial fisherman Zeke Estrella, who lost up to six hundred crab pots in the fire (a quarter of a million dollars of gear), is one of several heading the council. 

map of Columbia river near Ilwaco, Washington fire
Map of Columbia River and Ilwaco, Washington.

A clip by King5 Seattle News posted on the NFW Facebook page shows a group of fishermen working alongside Estrella – including a retired fisherman out of Bellingham, WA, whom Estrella didn’t meet until he arrived to help, and a competitor crab fisherman from his home port – buzzing around the trap house and tying up donated gear. (The retired Bellingham fisherman told Dixon he has arthritis and, “I can’t do much fast, but I can do.”) Five hundred pots arrived within two days from people Estrella didn’t even know. On January 25th, three days after the fire, he reflected. “I didn’t sleep, but we’re getting there now. We’ll be sleeping tomorrow,” he laughed. 

The replaced crab gear – some bought, the majority donated – came in truckloads from supporters in California to Washington. Although the gear wasn’t ready for fishing and needed repair, the fishermen instantly had something to work with. More importantly, they regained hope.

Estrella was reportedly at full capacity with two days to spare before the season. As for his gratitude, “Dude, I can’t express it.” In a recent Facebook post, Estrella shared updates on the GoFundMe campaign: “Due to the amazing amount of financial support you have all helped us raise, we now have a lot more money than we ever dreamed we would raise. That being said, Mark White, president of the (Ilwaco Tuna Club), and myself have formed a committee to oversee the (disbursement) of the funds to those in need.” The committee comprises Ilwaco Landing Dock Boss Dave Moore, Port Commissioner Mike Shirley, Estrella, White, and the Ilwaco Tuna Club Vice President, Tangly Cottage.

Let’s not forget the women. 

Nancy Miller of Westport, Washington, located about an hour and a half north of Ilwaco, gathered a group of friends to make sandwiches to feed the fishermen. An assembly line of white bread, cheese, condiments, and egg salad were packaged and stacked in cardboard trays, ready to deliver. Kids helped, too. “I called my girls and said this is what I’m doing, and they said, “‘Heck yes! Sign me up!’” When asked if they thought about giving up and waiting until next season, she replied, without hesitation, “That was never an option.”

In addition to replacing and painting buoys to the boat colors, gathering lines, attaching zincs, re-netting gear – and all the nuances it takes to prep – replacing gear tags, which, historically, takes government agencies months to process, was another hurdle. Thankfully, the state of Washington kicked into high gear, delivering the tags in time to stage and load for the opener. A Facebook post reported that the crab fishermen left before three in the morning on “dump day,” right on schedule. Crab season for the Ilwaco Landing fishermen is officially in full swing.

I asked Dixon to walk us through the day of the fire. “We all panicked because we’re all fishermen, and we all know what it’s like,” she said. “Right before the opener of crab season, especially because there’s such a big gap between the other seasons, crab season is when we make enough money to afford to fish the rest of the year.” The fire started less than a week before the opener, and the fact that this year’s season began in February, instead of December or January in former years, added to the financial stress. 

“Instantly, we all had that pit in our stomachs. You could lose your boat in a situation like this.” Dixon explains that the season’s first two weeks are “the cream, the best fishing.” She says that sometimes, over half of what crabbers make for the whole season is in the first two weeks. 

Ilwaco Landing Fire via Newport Fishermen’s Wives Facebook Page

This event made the Newport Fishermen’s Wives wonder how to extend support along the Pacific Coast. “It made us realize how it would be so nice if we had a West Coast CO-OP of nonprofits that could communicate and help through these things,” Dixon said. “We have batches of nonprofits for the fishing industry up and down the coast, but we don’t really communicate.” Dixon proposes a more permanent line of communication between the local fishing advocates to help further support ports that don’t have community representation. 

Casting a wider net for community support is what’s needed not only for fishermen and fishing families, but for the “woman power” of fishermen’s wives groups. For example, the NFW consists of unpaid volunteers. On top of their yearly contributions, let alone stepping in for disasters like the Ilwaco fire, burnout is inevitable. 

If you’d like to support the NFW, they’re always looking for more partners of commercial fishermen and community members to come aboard. Donations are also greatly helpful. To donate or join the group, contact NFW on their website: www.newportfishermenswives.com. “All of the money that comes to us, we take that out and use it for our fishing families or for seafood education,” Dixon said. 

For an example of how NFW uses funds, the volunteer-based group organizes Christmas boxes of food, gifts, and warm clothing for fishing families each year. This is the same group that filed a federal injunction against the Department of Homeland Security to keep a medevac helicopter accessible to their port – and won. 

“I don’t know any other industry that is so emotionally tied, yet they’re all competitors when they’re fishing,” Dixon said. “They have a drive to catch the most and do their best, and then, when something like this happens, it’s like, ‘We don’t care. We just want our fellow fishermen to be able to fish.’” 

Dixon ends our conversation by expressing her pride in those who stepped up to help. “I am so impressed with the kindness they showed these fishermen in need,” Dixon said. “This is what has kept me fighting for our families.” 

The kindness of strangers, friends, and competitors coming together to help a few fishermen are stories that can strengthen faith in humanity. So many of us in the commercial fishing community feel pushed aside and ignored by the government, maybe friends and family, and even the public, who choose imported or farmed seafood over the catch of our hardworking fishermen. Yet, instead of giving up at moments like this, fishing communities grieve momentarily, let a few (a lot) expletives fly and say, “Alright, let’s do this.” Not all is lost when we have each other. 

And a few unexpected friends.

*Feature photo by Jenna Austin via Facebook

Resources from Podcast Episode:

Newport Fishermen’s Wives Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/NewportFishermensWives

Website: https://www.newportfishermenswives.com/

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