Nearly every winter, crab fishermen perish in the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea. Yet year after year, they return to Alaska to bet against the shocking cold and wind for what can be a lucrative harvest.
This week, about 235 fishing boats, most from the Puget Sound region, will converge on the Bering Sea for the opilio crab season. The annual event has come to approximate a seaborne Alaskan gold rush, a convergence of opportunism, horrible weather and a life-threatening race against the clock.
About 2,500 fishermen – skippers, engineers, cooks and deck hands – will be on hand for the opening of the season Wednesday. If the record of the past 10 years holds, an average of seven of them will die on the job.
The season will be short – about two months – though twice as long as last year’s, when the shortest season ever put crews under extreme pressure to work around the clock. That season saw the loss of the seven-member crew of the Seattle-based crabbing vessel Pacesetter, the worst loss of life in the 1996 Alaska fishing season.
The weather will be miserable. The risks are well-documented. Why do it?
John Greenway, a Port Ludlow-area resident, has been fishing for 20 years. His boat is the F/V Northern Orion. He named his 3-year-old son, Rigel, after one of the brightest stars in the Orion constellation.
Greenway spent 265 days at sea last year. He says he spent 10 percent of his time crabbing, and that effort yielded 85 percent of his income.
“I’m 40 years old,” he says. “I don’t know what else I’d do. Where else can I make $120,000 to $150,000 a year with a high-school education?”
A deckhand, whose pay is calculated on a percentage of the catch, can expect to make from $20,000 to $25,000 for working a five-week season.
“There’s no other profession I know of – no legal profession, anyway – where these guys can make that kind of money,” says Mike Wilson, the Toledo, Ore., captain of the F/V Kiska Sea.
BEATING THE CLOCK
The winter crabbing season seems almost diabolically designed for accident, injury and death.
The opilio crab fishery begins in mid-January, when the crabs have built up a substantial amount of meat. In the mid-1980s, it ran as long as five months. Last year, because fisheries managers were concerned about declining numbers of crab, it was five weeks long during the worst weather the Bering Sea can generate.
At the height of the bad weather, crews may work a 20-hours-awake, four-hours-asleep schedule as they frantically jockey for the best crabbing.
In the far northern latitudes, crews get about five hours of full daylight.
“You have the false sense of it not being that bad, until ice forms,” says “Jake” Jacobsen, a second-generation Seattle fisherman. When the air is colder than the water, boats, heavily laden with crab pots, can ice up, destabilize and roll over in minutes.
Manned with sledge hammers, the crew chips away at the ice, sometimes for days. Jacobsen says he once stayed awake five days straight.
To remain alert, skippers sometimes use alarms that go off if they’re not deactivated every 10 minutes, he said.
The number of boats in the fishery have increased from about 50 in the mid-1980s to almost five times that number last year. Meanwhile, the quota – the maximum number of pounds crab fishery managers will allow to be taken in one season – has been slashed. It was 325 million pounds in 1991 and 65 million pounds last year (although it will be higher this year).
The resulting scramble for a lucrative, but limited, resource has become intense. “It’s very competitive,” says Jacobsen. “We can’t relax. It used to be more relaxed. We could shut down for six hours and get some sleep.”
The ice, the competitive pressure and the hit-and-miss search for crab allow for few mistakes. It’s possible to make a mistake “that takes you in the opposite direction from what you thought you were doing,” says Greenway. “Forty-eight hours later, you know you’re sunk.”
The pressure takes an inexorable toll at home.
“As a lifestyle, it’s hard on the family,” says Jacobsen, who has six children. “We never know what to expect.”
ONE BIG POP
For several years, the fishing community has been wrestling with how to arrest the appalling human toll that crabbing takes.
Figures compiled by the Alaska Crab Coalition, a trade group, show that the fatality rate among Bering Sea crab fishermen is seven times that of U.S. fishermen overall and 70 times greater than that for workers in U.S. industries overall.
Boats can capsize. Crewmen can be washed overboard. Groundings are common, caused by weather-created confusion or lack of sleep.
The pressure on crabbers is escalating. For the past several years, the crab quota has declined, and a flood of Russian crab on the market has contributed to a price slide.
Some fishermen and industry groups have supported another kind of quota system for the fishery, modeled on programs regulating the harvest of halibut and sablefish, other staples of the Alaskan fishery.
Such systems have dramatically reduced loss of life, says Arni Thompson of the Alaska Crab Coalition. With this system, fishermen would be allocated so much of the catch based on the length of their participation in the fishery. Such a system would reduce the number of participants in the fishery and give them more time and discretion about when they fish.
But because this sort of quota system would allocate the catch to vessel owners, others in the industry, including companies that buy the fish from fishermen and process them for the Japanese and American markets, fear it would give the fishermen “tremendous bargaining power,” says Vince Curry, spokesman for the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
Curry also notes that restricting the number of boats wouldn’t change the fact that the crab are in optimum shape for catching and processing during the worst weather.
The newly reauthorized Magnuson Act, the federal law that regulates fishing, placed a moratorium on such systems until 2000. Meanwhile, the industry is working on a license buyback program that would reduce the number of boats in the fleet. It probably would be funded by fishermen’s contributions, Thompson says.
This year, the fleetwide quota for the crab catch has been increased from 65 million pounds last year to an expected 117 million pounds.
Based on the need to sustain a six-figure income and the hope of a better year, Greenway left last week for Alaska, along with about 160 other boats from the Puget Sound area.
“I’d like to be able to stay home,” he said before he left. “I don’t like it anymore.”
Jacobsen went, too. “We all keep coming back because of the prospect of hitting it big,” says Jacobsen. “You never know when that big pop will be.”
“Much of the time it’s hard to tell if it’s raining or not because the water attacks in all directions. Most of the rain and snow falling in the Bering Sea is driven sideways by the wind. . . . The rain is everywhere, it’s out to get you, and your umbrella won’t help. . . .
“When the weather gets cold, the ocean sticks to the boat. When the wind is really screaming, a lot of ocean sticks to the boat. So much ocean may stick to the boat that it becomes top-heavy and rolls over. . . . On a boat you have to beat heavy saltwater ice with baseball bats, sledge hammers and crowbars. And not just thin layers, but blankets that can accumulate as fast as you can beat it off.”