In the early part of the twentieth century, Joe Bettencourt emigrated from Portugal to the United States and then traveled to San Leandro by wagon. Although he easily found work as a bartender, it wasn’t long before Joe wandered a bit further west and took up fishing. That was over 100 years ago, and there are still Bettencourts fishing out of Pillar Point Harbor.
Third-generation commercial fisherman Dave Bettencourt and his brother Eugene literally grew up in Pillar Point Harbor. Not only Grandpa Joe, but their father (Henry Bettencourt, F/V Evon) and three uncles (George Bettencourt, F/V Irene, Manuel Bettencourt and Ernest Bettencourt) were all commercial fishermen based at Pillar Point. Like many other early commercial fishermen in their port, the Bettencourts fished for whatever was available, including salmon, Dungeness crab and rockfish, and took out paying passengers when the fishing was slow. In addition, the Bettencourt family owned the first vessel devoted strictly to commercial passenger fishing vessel at Pillar Point.
After high school, Dave bought a car and went to work as a garbage man in order to earn the money to buy his first boat (“My father wouldn’t give me his.”) In 1964, he married Donna; they have a daughter and a son. To better provide for his young family, Dave took a position with the Half Moon Bay Fire Department, which he kept for 31 years, achieving the rank of Captain. Working as a fireman for ten days a month conveniently allowed plenty of time for his real love, commercial fishing.
In 1985, Dave bought the 50-foot wooden F/V Eleanor, on which he continued to fish for salmon, Dungeness crab and black cod (sablefish). The larger vessel also allowed him to expand into the trawl fisheries, fishing for rockfish, sole and halibut. Regardless of which boat he fished, however, Dave always chose fisheries which allowed him to stay close to home. By 1997, Dave had stepped back from the helm, relinquishing control of the fishing business to his son, Geoff and they replaced the aging Eleanor with the 55-foot F/V Moriah Lee, built in 1971 by the Fort Bragg Mackela Brothers
In 2005, the Bettencourts joined in The Nature Conservancy’s Ocean Habitat Protection Program, helping to protect the resources which had provided for their family over the years. Although no longer actively involved in trawl fisheries, the Moriah Lee would still be used to fish for Dungeness crab, black cod, and salmon.
Like most commercial fishing dynasties, the Bettencourts have endured their share of tragedy – in the 1970s, Eugene’s son, Tommy Bettencourt, was lost at sea. Still, for the Bettencourts commercial fishing is not just a business, it’s their heritage, their way of life, their very essence. Dave continues to actively fish in partnership with Geoff, and they anticipate that the legacy will live on – there’s already one nephew in training.
Although the Bettencourts do not direct market their fish, when they’re not fishing you’ll see the Moriah Lee berthed on “E” Dock at Pillar Point – but don’t expect to see Dave there, he spent enough hours in that harbor as a youngster – now he prefers to spend his free time either with his family or hunting.
(If you’re a sport crab fisherman and you’d like to take advantage of the Bettencourt family’s decades of experience, be sure to visit their website.)