'Total loss': Pier 45 Blaze Devastates SF’s Iconic Crabbing, Fishing Industry

2 min
San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association President John Barnett, himself a crabber and fisherman, lost more than $300,000 in fishing equipment in Saturday's fire.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

From his vantage point high on a hill overlooking San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Nick Krieger watched through binoculars as flames licked the sky above Pier 45 early Saturday morning.

The towering smoke plumes. The swirling siren lights. The fireboats showering arching waterfalls of bay water onto the burning warehouse. None of it would be enough.

Krieger, a longtime crabber and fisherman, watched his dreams burn.

More than $100,000 of his equipment — expensive crab pots and fishing gear purchased over the last 12 years — melted in the inferno.

The four-alarm Pier 45 blaze, which began just after 4 a.m. Saturday and was contained by the early afternoon, is still under investigation by the San Francisco Fire Department.

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But its impacts extend beyond Krieger: Roughly 30 crabbers and fishermen on average lost at least $300,000 worth of equipment in Saturday's blaze, according to the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, with an estimated total loss of $9 million. As the wreckage is inspected in the coming days, that number may grow.

The economic hit comes as fishermen are already reeling from plummeting sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we all kind of just felt like it couldn't get worse,” Krieger said. “But it got way worse.”

While the Port of San Francisco, which owns Pier 45, requires tenants to have insurance, as of Sunday the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association said it was unsure how much of the equipment loss insurance would cover — if any at all.

Crabbers speaking to KQED estimate half of Fisherman’s Wharf fishermen, the workers who give the place its name, saw their equipment go up in flames in the Pier 45 fire.

“The business of crabbing is an inextricable part of what San Francisco is. It’s part of our reputation and our economy,” said San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Fisherman’s Wharf.

Peskin added, “We’ve got a little bit of time between now and November to figure this thing out, but if it’s a philanthropic campaign or assistance, we need to get the crabbers back on their feet.”

While that effort may yet bear fruit, it’s likely that for the coming crab season, which starts in November, the crustaceans on Bay Area diners’ plates will be ones caught by fishermen from elsewhere in California who sail to San Francisco’s waters every season.

San Franciscan-caught crab may be off the menu, or at least scarce.

San Francisco fishermen have started a GoFundMe campaign with hopes of raising money to replace their lost gear. They’re also waiting to see if San Francisco steps up with economic assistance.

But with resources stretched thin during the pandemic, these crabbers and fishermen told KQED some may be forced to retire for good.

Hit Hard, Again

Fishing isn’t just a calling for Krieger, a Marin resident, it’s how he supports his wife and teenage daughter. He loves setting out to sea aboard his boat, the Take Time — setting his watch to the tides, the winds and the bevy of technological widgets that inform him of their movements.

But, he admits, money was already hard to come by.

One wholesaler Krieger long sold his catches to still owes him $50,000 from January, as they folded amid the pandemic, a familiar refrain among most of the fishermen affected by the fire, he said. Now things have gone from bad to worse.

John Barnett, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, mostly agreed with that assessment. He personally lost about $300,000 of equipment in the blaze.

Barnett said that even if — by some miracle — deep-pocketed donors replaced all of the equipment lost, rigging and restoring it may take so long that the crabbers will almost certainly miss the coming season. That’s a large chunk of their annual income, he said.

Firefighters parked outside The Franciscan Crab Restaurant near Pier 45 continued to contain 'smolders' Sunday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I think that there's a fair amount of fishermen that either won't be able to make it past this, [or] be able to get economically sound again in their own finances,” Barnett said. “I think there's a few fishermen that might just take this as their time to retire.”

And beyond the crabbers whose equipment is now little more than ash, there’s another concern — the structural integrity of Pier 45.

More than 80 years ago, Pier 45 was the last loading dock for World War II vessels bound to fight in the Pacific. Today, it is home to the main hoists of Fisherman’s Wharf responsible for unloading fish-filled nets from hundreds of fishermen.

Joe Conte runs Water 2 Table, which directly sells freshly caught fish. Conte estimates he lost $15,000 in property in the fire. But the pier’s integrity is his main concern. If it’s declared structurally unsound, the hoists may need to be moved, potentially impacting the incomes of hundreds of more fishermen.

“That pier is pretty much the heart of the local fishing industry,” Conte said. “If they have this pier taped off for weeks or months, that's devastating.”

Uncertain Waters

Of Pier 45’s fate, the Port of San Francisco said it’s just too early to tell.

Debris from the fire is still too plentiful to actually get boots on the ground to inspect the hoists, said Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for the Port. The same goes for the structural integrity of Pier 45. The Port expects to announce its findings Tuesday afternoon.

Crabber Nick Krieger sits aboard the 'Amigo,' a fishing boat, a day after a fire destroyed most of his gear. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

That may also prompt the nonprofit that administers the historic World War II-era vessel, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, to move the ship from Pier 45, its home for roughly 20 years, said Matt Lasher, the group’s executive director. The ship escaped the blaze thanks to the swift action of a fireboat called the St. Francis.

But in some winds of fortune for the fishermen, the fire was contained to only one warehouse on Pier 45. The other three sheds that process fish straight from the boats remain largely intact, Quezada said.

“We will work with them to find a replacement space,” Port of San Francisco Executive Director Elaine Forbes told KQED at the scene of the fire Saturday as crews were still working to contain it.

But, she added, “It’s probably a total loss.”

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KQED reporter Marco Siler-Gonzales contributed to this report.