By Douglas Buell
The Arlington Times
The steel and nylon mesh pots stacked like Legos aboard the show’s fishing vessels are manufactured by Dungeness Gear Works. The company, near Arlington Municipal Airport and 16 miles from the nearest saltwater port, is the largest builder of commercial crab and fish pots in the U.S.
Company President Lance Nylander obsessed over how to improve traps for king crab. Through grit, trial and error, pricing and design, the entrepreneur and eighth-grade dropout has cornered a crab and fish trap market that has survived complex quota systems and other challenges.
“I quit my competitor, and off I went, started with a thousand units, and it just kind of went from there,” Nylander said. “Four years later, Dungeness Gear Works was No. 1 in the industry.”
The company made 14,000 king crab pots by the fourth year.
Today, he oversees a business with 20 employees and $3 million in annual revenue.
In a twist of fate, it turns out Nylander is allergic to the one food that fed his life’s success — king crab.
In 1976, then-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. The 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 10 pots a day, and I was a happy camper making that kind of money,” he said. Webbing king crab pots gave 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 spent the next 11 years at Norsol. That’s when he first heard the term “independent contractor,” learning that those folks were being paid three times what he made as a dedicated employee just to keep up with orders. So he went independent, too.
With new flexibility, 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 down the price.
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. 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 the established customer base.
Nylander still was not into the company’s namesake pots. He said too much work 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. People pulling a pot onto the deck consider 90 to 100 legal-sized male crabs a good haul. With an average weight of three to seven pounds for those critters, the crews 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.
By 1993, however, regulatory agencies began imposing pot limits in the Bering Sea to avoid overfishing. 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. 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 increase crab pot hauls. He was on a ship opposite the Northwestern — “neck and neck with Northwestern Capt. Sig Hansen on top of the crab, and he was beating us by a little bit.”
After hours of footage, Nylander’s scenes were cut.
“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.
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.
This story originally appeared in The Arlington Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald. This is the first in a two-part series about the fishing industry.