Disaster hits crab fishery
TWO INCIDENTS: Kodiak vessel is believed to have sunk; 2 dead, 4 missing.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers and the crews of other fishing vessels searched for the missing crabbers late into the night Saturday.
Authorities did not release any of the names of the dead and missing. The incidents involving the vessels Big Valley and Sultan add to the already long and horrid safety record for Bering Sea crabbing, identified by federal safety officials as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.
The Big Valley, a 92-foot boat based in Kodiak, was believed to have sunk Saturday morning some 70 miles west of St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, the Coast Guard said.
Of the boat’s six-man crew, three were recovered, but only one of them, Cache Seel of Kodiak, survived, according to the authorities. The Coast Guard reported Seel was “doing well” in a St. Paul clinic. The other three members had not been found by nightfall.
Among the crew was skipper and vessel owner Gary Edwards, according to authorities and acquaintances. Both Edwards, 46, and the Big Valley are well-known in the fishing port of Kodiak. It was not clear late Saturday whether Edwards was among the three crewmen still missing.
In a separate incident, a Washington state man fell off the 134-foot Seattle-based fishing vessel Sultan, the Coast Guard said. The incident occurred about 150 miles northwest of St. Paul, and at nightfall he too remained missing.
The two boats were among 171 vessels that two days earlier had departed from Dutch Harbor and other Bering Sea ports to travel hundreds of miles into the Bering Sea in pursuit of snow crab, a large and spindly species of crab sold as a poor man’s alternative to the larger and more valuable king crab. With a catch limit this season of 19.3 million pounds, the crabbers are competing for a share of a possible $35 million payoff.
Both incidents Saturday happened before the fishery even opened at noon. The Coast Guard reported receiving an emergency radio signal from the Big Valley shortly after 7 a.m., and the Coast Guard received word about 11 a.m. that the Sultan crewman had fallen overboard.
Winds of 35 knots and seas up to 18 feet were reported during Saturday’s search.
Prior to the fleet leaving port, the Coast Guard and state fishery managers deemed the weather outlook decent enough to allow the fishery to proceed.
Lt. Cmdr. Chris Woodley, chief of port operations for the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Anchorage, said from Dutch Harbor on Saturday that weather for the start of the snow crab fishery was “typical, crappy Bering Sea weather, but certainly not unusual.”
Woodley said it remained unclear whether the Big Valley capsized or had some other kind of problem.
Before the start of a fishery, the decks of boats are stacked high with heavy, steel traps, called pots, that are dropped one by one to the sea floor to capture the crabs. The pots, which weigh some 600 pounds apiece, affect vessel stability and sometimes catch freezing sea spray, turning them into heavy blocks of ice.
“This is the high-risk period for capsizing,” Woodley said. “Because they’ve got a full deckload, they’re susceptible to icing and freezing spray. This fits into the classic scenario for a Bering Sea crabber going down.”
The Coast Guard will investigate, however, to see just what the weather conditions and circumstances were surrounding the loss of the Big Valley.
Apparently the crew did not get off a Mayday or distress message, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis in Kodiak.
The Big Valley was a steel-hulled boat built in 1968. It was fairly small for the Bering Sea crab fishery, in which some boats are 180 feet or longer.
Coast Guard safety crews did onboard inspections of about 90 boats prior to the fishery, but the Big Valley was not among them, Woodley said. He was not sure whether the boat had a decal, good for two years, signifying a boat had passed inspection.
The Coast Guard summoned “good Samaritan” vessels and others to the scene while sending a C-130 Hercules airplane and an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that it had prepositioned at St. Paul explicitly for the snow crab fishery.
The Stimson, a 156-foot State Troopers patrol vessel, also showed up. The Stimson arrived about 10:30 a.m. and located a debris field, Troopers spokesman Tim DeSpain said. At about that time, the Coast Guard’s helicopter arrived, DeSpain said.
The helicopter crew located one man in the water and found Seel floating alone in a life raft, the Coast Guard said. The Stimson’s crew, meanwhile, found a third crewman from the Big Valley in the water and took him aboard. He was unconscious, and the crew tried but failed to revive him, pronouncing him dead, DeSpain said.
Seel and the two dead crewmen all were wearing survival suits, the authorities said. Troopers said two of the Big Valley’s crew went into the water without survival suits.
The Big Valley sinking wracked the town of Kodiak, which in the 1999 snow crab fishery suffered the capsizing of a local boat, the Lin-J, killing all five aboard.
Debra Davis of Kodiak hoped all day for word from the Coast Guard that her friend Edwards might turn up alive. As darkness set in, she was beginning to have her doubts.
“But show me a miracle,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
Brad Stevens, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist in Kodiak, said he knew Edwards and his boat, the Big Valley, from his many research trips aboard the vessel. The Big Valley was chartered often for fisheries and other studies. Just this summer, the boat served as a platform for divers doing archaeological research on the 1860 wreck of the ice freighter Kad’yak.
“Gary was always very safety conscious and always very aware of what was going on on the boat and with the weather,” Stevens said. “I was always very comfortable with the vessel and with Gary’s seamanship.” Because the boat was often chartered by government scientists, it had to meet numerous standards in terms of safety equipment, Stevens said.
He said Edwards, who was not married, has wide-ranging interest in things like art and natural history, and it showed in his boat.
“The Big Valley is one of the most eclectic boats I’ve ever been on,” Stevens said. “Usually a fishing boat is very utilitarian. But Gary had a bookshelf that was stocked with incredible literature, and artwork was all over the vessel. I spent an afternoon and evening reading Carl Jung, a book I picked off his bookshelf one day.”
The sinking broke a string of four consecutive snow crab seasons without a lost boat or life.
Saturday’s disasters, ironically, came during the final round of free-for-all fishing for Bering Sea crab.
Later this year, federal regulators are expected to install a new management system where each boat receives an individual catch quota.
It will mark the end of the current era in which boats race one another for crab, fishing even through rough weather to catch as many crabs as possible before the overall catch limit is reached and the season closes.
This year’s fishery could end in little more than a week.