First in a two-part series
ARLINGTON – Next time you’re watching crew members battle the elements to secure crab pots on deck in Alaska’s perilous Bering Sea on Discovery Channel’s reality hit series “Deadliest Catch,” think of Arlington.
The steel and nylon mesh pots stacked like Legos aboard the show’s fishing vessels are manufactured by Dungeness Gear Works. The company located near Arlington Municipal Airport is the largest builder of commercial crab and fish pots in the United States, and 16 miles away from the nearest salt water port.
Lance Nylander, company president with 31 years in the industry, obsessed over how to build a better king crab trap. Through grit, trial and error, fair pricing and multi-use trap design, the resourceful entrepreneur and eighth-grade dropout has cornered a crab and fish trap market that has survived complex quota systems, industry rationalization and Chinese knock-offs that were no match for his original.
“I quit my competitor, and off I went, started with a thousand units, and it just kind of went from there,” Nylander said of his 1987 business venture. “Four years later, Dungeness Gear Works was number one in the industry.”
The company whose motto is “fish the best and beat the rest” made 14,000 king crab pots by the fourth year.
Today, he oversees a business with 20 employees, $3 million in annual revenues and a fluctuating number of units built per day based on demand, in an industry that has experienced highs and lows every bit as extreme as the Bering Sea swells. Break out the seasick pills.
In a cruel twist of fate, it turns out Nylander is allergic to the one food that fed his life’s success – king crab. That was an early lesson for Nylander, but one that didn’t stop him from clawing his way to the top.
How he got in the business
In 1976, the 18-year-old Nylander got into the industry with a push from his older brother who worked at Marco Marine’s Shipyard in Ballard that built the crab boats. That company next door made pots for all the crabbers in the Bering Sea during the boom times.
“The first two weeks I had blisters all over my hands, my muscles ached, and I thought it was the worst job anybody could have in life,” Nylander said. “But I stuck with it.”
The job got easier with time, and the “piece work” – $6 paid per pot – or piece – started to pay off.
“I was pumping out ten pots a day, and I was a happy camper making that kind of money,” he said, with webbing king crab pots giving the best return on investment. Within six months, a friend on the Bering Sea boats tipped him to another company, Norsol in Edmonds, a manufacturer that was paying $10 a pot.
Nylander jumped ship, spending the next 11 years at Norsol where he learned the nuances of the industry, mastering the assembly side, but picking up on business acumen as well. That’s when he first heard the term “independent contractor,” learning that hired guns were being paid three times what he made as a dedicated employee just to keep up with crab pot orders. So he went independent, too.
With that newfound flexibility in his schedule, he heard that a couple of customers wanted someone to make brown king crab pots for them. Nylander said he could do it, and set out designing a five-foot round pot. He filled the order on time and brought the unit price down.
That’s how he became connected with Dungeness Gear Works. In 1987, the company’s two partners were looking for space to buy or lease in Everett and Marysville. Nylander said they only had an order for 50 Dungeness crab pots, which they did not like despite the “Dungeness” in the name – the highly popular crustacean on Pacific Northwest menus. By comparison, Nylander had an order for 200 Alaskan king crab pots.
Ultimately, Nylander bought two-thirds of the company from the other partners. He sought to change the name to Sno-King Crab Pots, but the partners insisted on keeping Dungeness for its established customer base.
Nylander still was no fan of the company’s namesake pots. He said too much manpower went into making them, hand-knitting the metal wiring was punishing on wrists and hands, and the profit was unimpressive.
On the other hand, “king crab pots are made with nylon mesh netting, and the value between the two types of pots is night and day,” he said.
Today, his turnkey 7-by-7-by-3 foot combo king crab traps sell for $1,250 each. Fishermen pulling a pot onto the deck consider 90-100 legal-sized male crabs a good haul. With an average weight of three to seven pounds, fishermen can make between $27 and $45 for each red king crab they catch.
The company fell on rocky times in its first year when a family accountant showed Nylander that they were losing money on each pot sale. Nylander took possession of the company in 1988, and put them in the black a year later after urging vendors and suppliers that checks would arrive in the mail if they would just be patient.
The 1990s started off favorably for Dungeness Gear Works, with 100 employees pounding out thousands of king crab pots that left other competitors in their wake.
By 1993, however, regulatory agencies began imposing pot limits in the Bering Sea to avoid overfishing. That capsized pot sales, Nylander said. The company lost $70,000 in 1993 and $80,000 in 1994.
Nylander said so long to small pots and focused on the big and profitable ones that today can be used for king crab, snow king crab, opilio crab and bairdi crab, Pacific cod, black cod and, as is looking more likely with future regulatory changes, halibut.
In 1998, while Nylander was in Alaska doing research using underwater camera equipment, he was approached by a film crew to assist on a show to be called “Deadliest Job in the World.”
That’s where he met Thom Beers, whose Original Productions was hired by Discovery Channel for a one-hour series called “Extreme Alaska,” and 12-minute segments about crabbing in the Bering Sea. The film crew had no idea that they were going to be stuck at sea for three weeks until the skipper returned to port with a full load of crab, breaking a couple of poorly placed cameras on deck in the meantime, even though Nylander warned them where not to put them. The show evolved into “Deadliest Catch.”
Nylander was supposed to appear in the first episode, armed with his “toys and testing gear” that he wanted to experiment with to try to increase crab pot hauls. He was on a ship opposite the Northwestern – “neck and neck with Northwestern Captain Sig Hansen on top of the crab, and he was beating us by a little bit.”
After hours of footage, Nylander went from ocean floor to cutting room floor.
“They completely edited me out of the show and that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame,” Nylander said. At least he got a “Thanks” credit on the show’s Imdb web page.
That’s no reflection on the business relationships that Nylander has maintained with Deadliest Catch captains. In his company’s yard, Nylander has combination king crab pots ready for Hansen, and king crab and Pacific cod pots headed for Capt. Jake Anderson aboard the Saga.
Nylander isn’t much of a “Deadliest Catch” viewer.
“I can’t watch the show now with all the drama they create,” he said.
For others, it’s the drama that has earned the show several Emmy awards and millions of followers since it debuted in 2006. Forty-foot waves, hurricane force winds, ice bergs and life-threatening situations are the norm.
Part 2 – When the Alaskan crab industry shifted from a derby-style season to a quota system called rationalization, the move put many crews and small boats out of business, along with businesses like Dungeness Gear Works who supported them.