Crab Man: A few hours on the Sea Fox

March 15, 2012

interview by Heather Smith
photos by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Seventeen. 

IT TAKES A DETERMINED PERSON a while to find Ron Ashwin. In the heart of the bustling T-shirt shops, trinketariums, and behemoth seafood eateries that make up
San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, there is an alley. That alley leads to a wharf, which leads to a dock, which leads, ultimately, to the Sea Fox, the fishing boat owned by the man himself. 

Ron Ashwin is not only a crab fisherman; he has played one on television. In an AT&T commercial, he spins a ship’s steering wheel maniacally and yells, “I want to catch more crab!” This role paid for new crab pots for the Sea Fox. The other fishermen took it with equanimity. “He beat out all the other guys at the audition just because he looked like the guy on the Gorton’s Fish Sticks box,” one of them explains, diplomatically.

At the time of our interview, Ashwin — along with all the other burly men sunning themselves on piles of crab pots — is on strike. The seafood processors, who last year bought 27.5 million pounds of the Dungeness crab their industry pulled off the California seabed, want to pay $2 a pound this year. That’s more than they got last year, but still one of the lowest prices anyone can remember. The crab fishermen want $2.50.

A week after our interview, both groups will settle for $2.25. Boats will lift anchor and take off on the hunt. 

What were prices like last year? 

Ron Ashwin: Last year the price went from $1.75 to $1.67. It was missed communication. Which is the game they play.

I’ve done negotiation before. They’re trying to chisel us — that’s it. It doesn’t matter to them what they sell. They’re selling tires, used cars, houses.

But we’re a solid industry now, and that’s what’s important. It’s everyone together, on three different ports. And we got surround sound on the boat.

What do you listen to? 

RA: Classic rock.

Is that what the crew likes to listen to? 

RA: I’m the captain. Any of that boom boom clap stuff — sorry! Overboard!

(To the deckhand splicing line on the deck of the boat) What’s it like being in a boat with these guys for days? 

DECKHAND: It’s terrible. We try to tolerate each other. We’d have more room in a prison cell. But as you can see, we have all the modern conveniences. We have radio. Television. Surround sound.

How did you get started working here? 

D: I was just fishing one day off of one of the piers. Ron came up and we started to talk. He said, “Do you know how to tie knots?” I said no. He said, “Do you need a job?” I said yeah. And then he showed me a few knots to tie.

Did you pick it up fast? 

D: Not really.

How long have you been fishing off the piers? 

D: All my life. I grew up in Chinatown, so the piers were never far away.

Is that what kids in Chinatown do? 

D: The ones that flunk. Ha ha. I was still a good student, though. It’s just a little something called “the call of the wild.”

Whenever I go out on the piers, I see all of these signs that say, in many different languages, that I should really think twice about eating any fish I catch myself in San Francisco Bay. How do you feel about those signs? 

D: Anything that looks good and is still swimming, I’ll eat it. It’s that farmed stuff that’s bad for you. All those hormones and steroids and shit.

(To Ron) What do you look for in a crab fisherman?

RA: Attitude. Physical ability. Willingness to wanna.

Half the pay you get is being proud of what you do. This is the most dangerous job on the planet. Ships can run us down. There’s no insurance.

I fished for 15 years alone. Then I took a crab pot in the shoulder. Now I need two guys to do the job that I used to do.

So what’s fishing in the Bay like now, compared with fishing in the Bay then? 

RA: There were more fish. We’ve cleaned up the Bay so much, there’s nothing left in it.

Where do you get your gear? 

RA: We all build our own. We add buoys. The lines are handmade. It takes 2.5 to 3 hours per crab pot to make and put in a line. It comes to about $220 to $235 a pot.

What do you use as bait? 

RA: Now that’s a secret. If they get the good stuff, they’ll pack themselves in so tight you can’t get them out. It’s like you poured them in like cement and they got hard. But it’s secret stuff. Baloney sandwiches. Secret stuff.

Has anyone in your family wanted to go into the business? 

RA: I had stepkids. I took ’em out and they said, “Thank you very much. See ya later.” One’s an accountant. One’s an RN.

I’ve worked in offices before. I’ve had businesses. It felt like someone died and we forgot to bury them.

What businesses? 

RA: I was a mechanical engineer. My people have been building dams and roads in California for a long time.

When I was a kid, I met a surgeon in the Presidio. He had a master’s in engineering. We started building aircraft together. Today kids are building from kits. I built from a white piece of paper.

I more or less quit trades in ’73, then I went back on contract. I spent more than 24 years training on the college level — all to catch a crab.

So did you build this boat? 

RA: When I bought this boat, she was a hull. I went through, redesigned the cabin, rewired it with three electrical systems: 2011 technology in a 64-year-old-boat. Surround sound …

Half the pay you get is being proud of what you do. This is the most dangerous job on the planet.

And what took you from engineering into fishing? 

RA: I learned to swim in the Bay in grammar school. I would tell my parents that I was going to the pool. I would get my gaggle and we would go swim in the ocean. Hunt little Dungeness crabs.

I was a wharf rat. I fished right here. Right off this dock, Pier 45. You know Municipal Pier? I fished underneath it, too. I would sit there for 16 hours. I would wait for the tide to come up and then wait six hours for it to go down again. I would put rags and olive oil in a coffee can and get it smoldering, and warm my hands on it, just to stay alive. But it was adventure.

I started selling fish. I would sell at the markets. I would put them on a bus and take them to the market in a cooler. I had people coming down from Chinatown, San Francisco.

I made anywhere from $35 to $60 a day. I didn’t know, but I was making more than my dad was. But I was in the fourth grade.

Were the commercial fishermen nice to you? 

RA: They were if you were Italian. But they knew who I was. I had a nickname — “Little Ron.”

San Francisco was a small community. Everyone knew everyone. All the cops knew me. I was in good standing. They were my friends. You can’t be in business as a 10-year-old without it. The game wardens knew who I was. They could have busted me.

I like fishing. It was like magnet and iron. Then I got my first boat in ’68, and that ruined me.

There’s a romance to it. We go out to the Farallon Islands, up and down the coast 500 miles. We can’t fish where the fish aren’t. We got to find the little critters. Bring ’em home. It’s a one-way ticket.

I like the adventure. I take pride in putting together a puzzle and watching it work. I used to build cars from a white piece of paper. This is doing something.

We all know what pride is. Your back is straighter. Food tastes better. It’s nice to have as much as you can have of it.

Do you still like crab? 

RA: I don’t eat much, but my wife won’t let me into the house unless I bring crab home, so there you are.


HEATHER SMITH is a Meatpaper editor. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

Photographer JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru and raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Seventeen.

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