Trilogy Crabpots: Building a better mouse (crab) trap

Years ago, former crabber Harvey Ives made a couple of changes to a 50-year-old crabpot design. Last year, he and his 35 employees made 30,000 crab pots, and his company continues to grow.

Trilogy Crabpots owner Harvey Ives travels the West Coast from California to Alaska talking to commercial crabbers about his pots. A former commercial crabber himself, Ives’ networking has paid off; his company is now making over 30,000 pots a year.

J.J.Jensen
   Whether it was playing sports at Blaine High School or crabbing in Puget Sound for 37 years, Harvey Ives, 53, said he’s always been brash and confident he could outperform his competitors.
   Since buying Trilogy Crabpots in 2000, Ives’ attitude hasn’t changed, as was apparent on a recent morning in his cluttered office, tucked away in a warehouse among the poplars on Marine Drive.
   Surrounded by stacks of invoices and empty coffee thermoses, and with charts of local waters and photos of crab pots overflowing with Dungeness crabs adorning his walls, Ives took numerous phone calls from customers and, in blue-collar, everyman fashion, ended each conversation the same way.
“Just tell us what you need,” he’d say. “We’ll git ‘er done.”
   The workaholic Ives, a Blaine native, who for years crabbed out of Blaine Harbor on the King Crab, has transformed the once-fledgling Trilogy into one of the largest crab-pot manufacturers on the West Coast.
   Though years of back problems forced him off the water and into hanging up his rain gear and boots several years ago, he’s since transferred his can-do work ethic to business at Trilogy.
   “I grew up around competitive stuff,” he said. “My dad was a crab fisherman and I picked it up from him a little bit. This business is action-packed. There’s no boredom. You can work as hard as you want to, and I’ve enjoyed a good day’s work. You can make it fun or you can whine and cry about it and make yourself miserable.”
   In aiding Ives’ success, around the time he bought Trilogy, he also came up with a new crab-pot design concept some fisherman believe has revolutionized the industry.
For as long as he could remember, Ives said, typical crab-pot entries had tunnels with swinging wires that allowed crabs to enter the pot. The hanging wires then overlapped a straight bar that kept it from swinging back outward.
   However, noted Ives, if crabs wanted to get out, all they had to do was squeeze back through the hanging wires.
   Ives patented a pot with indented grooves in the bar the swinging wires brace against so that, from the inside, crabs can no longer split them and slide out.
Also with traditional pots, oftentimes, in a strong current, the same swinging wires will be pushed off the straight bar, opening the tunnel completely, and allow crabs to come and go freely.
   Ives puts a counterbalance at the top of the hanging wires, where the hinges are, so they don’t swing open as easily in a current.
   “Crab pots never changed for 50 years and were the same pots our dads used and their dads used. They never evolved,” Ives said.
   Though Ives was well known locally, having helped found the Puget Sound Crabbers Association in the late 1970s, and working with local legislators in 1988 to get illegal foreign crab pots out of U.S. waters near Blaine, there just wasn’t a big enough market in the area to make much of a profit.
   So he took his pots to the coasts of Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska, in hopes of reaching new customers, and was greeted by fishermen much like himself.
“I went after the big dogs and I couldn’t even get a conversation with them because they were so arrogant,” he said. “They were the best with what they had, so why would they change?”
   Ives said he had to be persistent with them, even when they claimed they’d never heard of “Pug-It Sound.” It took awhile, but he let them know he was one of them. He’d make some crude jokes, tell stories and eventually got one of the most-respected state crabbers, Dennis Sturgil, to sample his pots.
Sturgil loved them.
   “Once he got on board, everyone followed,” Ives said.
   Since then, Ives’ business has grown every year, mostly due to word-of-mouth. Customers, he said, from San Francisco to Adak, Alaska, place orders with him.
In his first year at Trilogy, the company built about 12,000 pots; last year, it produced 30,000, with prices ranging from $45 for a sport pot to $150 for a commercial pot.
The number of employees at Trilogy has also nearly tripled since Ives took over the business.
   While Trilogy typically operates from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, there are also times when its 35 employees can work several consecutive weeks without a day off, building more than 140 pots a day.
The busiest time of year is in the late fall, as coastal crabbers prepare for their seasons to open.
   From Marine Drive, where Trilogy is marked by a plywood sign with its name and hours spray-painted on it, it’s not very apparent there’s a bustling business just down a dirt road.
   Ringed by thousands of crab pots, stacked 10 high, is a 9,000-square-foot warehouse, humming with the sounds of welders and forklifts.
   Making the custom iron pots, which range from 28-inch, 20-pound sport pots to 48-inch, 160-pound commercial pots, can take up to 11 people, Ives said.
   Employees cut and roll the iron, weld pieces together, ring the cages in rubber (so they don’t scratch boats), knit them over with stainless steel, build tunnels, inspect for quality, and load pots for shipment.
   Jobs at Trilogy typically pay from $10 to $26 an hour.
   Ives anticipates his business will stay steady in the coming years, at around 30,000 pots a year, as he gains new customers and replaces pots that are lost at sea or stolen.
   He said he doesn’t see business slipping because the crab industry is well-regulated and self-sustaining, and believes crab catches aren’t likely to decrease. Also, more sports fishers are buying pots.
   “Combining the coastal crab and Puget Sound, crabbing is the largest fishery in the state,” said Karen Thompson, president of the Puget Sound Crabbers Association.    “It’s a healthy, abundant fishery and, from the commercial crabber’s point of view, everything is hunky dory.”
   In Puget Sound, she said, there are probably more than 600 commercial crab licenses, between state and tribal fishermen.
   Last year, Thompson said, state commercial crabbers caught 2.5 million pounds of crab in Puget Sound, tribal fishers caught 3.5 million pounds and recreational crabbers caught 1.25 million pounds.
   On the coast, where there are more than 200 commercial crab licenses, nearly 24 million pounds of crab was caught, said a Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman.
   While some crabbers prefer to buy pots from small manufacturers, such as Bakerview Crabpots, a three-person company, because they believe the pots are built with more individual care and attention, many in the industry say Trilogy has developed a good reputation.
   Donna Veliz, a sales associate at Redden Marine, said Trilogy’s sport pots are popular with many yachters heading into the San Juan islands.
   “They’re reasonably priced and they’re very well made,” she said. “The mesh wire around them is put on well and they have weights in them so you don’t have to buy extra weights to weigh them down.”
   Bob Jackson, a crabber out of Westport who bought 300 traps last year, said some of Ives’ early designs had “too much monkey business,” but have gotten better over time.
   “The new style, with the crinkle trigger, I like,” Jackson said. “They seem to
do well for us. I wouldn’t say they necessarily outfish other pots but Harvey’s good about getting them done on time for you.”
   Bob Eder, a crabber out of Newport, Ore., who’s bought about 1,500 pots from Trilogy, said Ives is respected among coastal fishermen because he takes time to travel to the coast and see how his pots are fishing.
   “He’s a fearless innovator and he understands us because he is one of us,” Eder said. “In an industry that’s had probably the same trap since the 1950s, he’s made the most significant changes. He’s built a better mousetrap. And he’s a lot of fun and keeps applying himself.”
   Ives said he takes frequent trips to the coast as a way to get to know his customers better and stay connected to the folks doing the fishing.
   In his office, Ives said, he keeps a library of where the biggest coastal and Puget Sound catches are. Sometimes, by phone, he’ll call boat captains and suggest prime crabbing spots.
   “I can actually be on somebody’s boat by telephone and be fishing with them,” he said. “Fishing’s a drug. It gets in your blood and doesn’t go away.”

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