Alaska’s fishermen risk their lives each time they make a run for the lucrative king crab. Chefs and seafood aficionados are the beneficiaries of their death-defying work.
Greg Atkinson reports.
Flying from Anchorage over the Gulf of Alaska toward Dutch Harbor to kick off the Bristol Bay red king crab season, I looked out the window of the 30 passenger Saab 340 prop plane and gazed wistfully back at what I could still see of the Alaskan mainland. Mountains soared majestically above the Anchorage skyline still sparkling in the dawn light. And as I watched, the beach and the bay gave way to open water, then a patchwork of ice fields, river basins, and tree covered knolls, until everything disappeared under a uniform blanket of gray. Rising above the clouds were occasional cinder cones, each one a snow-covered peak.
After three and half hours we plunged back down through the surface of that sea of clouds, and rising to meet us was a jumble of bays and islands, blue-gray and green at the higher elevations, sloping down toward the same gray-green at the water’s edge. In between were grassy hills bleached golden and frosted silver. It occurred to me that under the surface of the real sea, a similar pattern continued as the slopes descended into the rocky depths, past eelgrass and kelp to the floor of the Bering Sea. There lived the enormous king crabs we had come to see. I imagined them milling about awaiting their inevitable demise. And over the course of the next three days, I would see them harvested and delivered live to a processing plant where they would be graded, killed, cooked, chilled, and packed for shipping to a long line of chefs and homemakers eager to taste their incomparable meat.
Beneath their red and white lacquered shells, kings deliver diners a crab experience like none other. Their sheer tenderness and size render the East Coast blue crab and even the relatively large West Coast Dungeness crab small and stringy by comparison. Sweet, with just a hint of brine, the flavor of this voluptuous crustacean leaves Gulf prawns wriggling helplessly in their articulated shells and Maine lobsters rattling their awkward claws in sheer wasted effort. No other shellfish can beat a red king for gastronomic pleasure. What’s more, the harvest comes wrapped in a host of colorful fish tales that add something to every bite.
Meanwhile, I was experiencing my own fish tale as the plane careened headlong toward what looked like a solid cliff wall facing Unalaska Bay. Only seconds before the plane touched down, the cliff wall gave way to a narrow landing strip. I looked across the aisle at Derrick Styczek, a sous chef from The River Café in Brooklyn. His New York brand of cool had given way to unabashed terror or perhaps excitement as the thrill ride continued. It seemed impossible that the wing tip would clear the edge of the cliff, and no sooner had we landed than the brakes were applied to prevent our plunging into Dutch Harbor on the opposite side of the narrow isthmus. The other travelers were equal parts shaken and thrilled.
Drawn from one of the wildest corners of North America, the great red kings have been harvested for decades by a handful of freewheeling fishermen almost as venerated as the last of the Old West cowboys. Before recent changes in the fishery “rationalized” the catch—allotting specific quotas to fishermen and processors based on previous harvests—the industry was governed “derby style,” with brief windows of opportunity when fishermen raced to bring in as many crabs as they could before the opening ended. Fraught with danger, excitement, and enough lucre to rival the California gold rush of 1849, the fishery was immortalized by the Discovery Channel in a television series as the world’s “Deadliest Catch.”
The title of the show is no exaggeration. According to a 1997 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Alaskan waters claimed an average of 34 fishing vessels each year, and 24 lives were lost in the commercial fishing industry, which equates to an occupational fatality rate 20 times the national average and rendered Alaska the most dangerous place to work in America. But crab fishing makes fishing for anything else seem like tiddledywinks.
“Crabbing,” according to the report by NIOSH, “is particularly hazardous because harvesting of most crab species in Alaska generally takes place during the winter months, often in conditions of cold air and water temperatures, high winds, snow, sleet, ice, short daylight hours, and high seas.” Wretched conditions are par for the course.
“When hundred mile an hour winds hit Louisiana, they call it Katrina,” says Captain Phil Harris. “When hurricane force winds hit the Bering Sea, we call it Tuesday.” Harris is captain of the fishing vessel Cornelia Marie, a 128-foot fishing boat that has the capacity to hold 312,000 pounds of crab. He was featured on the second season of Deadliest Catch.
The essential equipment used on commercial crabbing vessels consists of enormous steel cages known as pots. The prototypes for modern crab pots were jerry-rigged from metal bed frames left behind by the United States Army, when some 30,000 troops rotated in and out of Dutch Harbor defending America’s Pacific frontier from the Japanese, who bombed Dutch Harbor six months after they bombed Pearl Harbor. Decendants of cavalry horses, also abandoned by the military after the Second World War, wander the grassy slopes of Unalaska Island. And a cattle ranch, larger than Parker Ranch in Hawaii, goes untapped because of the logistical challenge of bringing the grass fed beef to the Lower 48. Another former Deadliest Catch star, Captain Larry Hendricks of the Sea Star, took me to the hills outside the town of Unalaska to feed the horses. “They love people,” he says.
Ships like Sea Star and Cornelia Marie carry 180 pots. Even empty, each pot or trap weighs close to 800 pounds, so moving them around on deck or hauling them fully loaded from the icy sea calls for a combination of sharp wits, tremendous physical strength, and some serious cranes. Simply stacking the heavy crab pots on deck can “severely compromise vessel stability,” notes the NIOSH report, especially when both pots and deck are sheathed in ice. As if all this were not dangerous enough, baiting the traps requires fishermen to crawl inside just before they are launched over the side of the boat. And yes, fishermen do sometimes get washed overboard, trapped inside the crab pots.
“What’s really weird,” recalls Captain Harris, drawing hard on one of the 30 to 40 unfiltered cigarettes he smokes every day, “is after you pull up the body of a crew member, you have to go on fishing, working around the body of your co-worker and friend, sometimes for a couple of days.” At first, he says, the other fishermen are shaken and reverent. “We put this one guy in the galley at first, then realized we couldn’t step over him every time we needed a cup of coffee. And we couldn’t put him in the freezer because it was full of product. Eventually, we had to strap him to the decks. I guess you just learn to deal with it. But these guys are tough. I’ve seen guys come up into the wheelhouse and ask for duct tape so they can tape their broken fingers together and go on working.”
After a day or two on the open Bering Sea bringing in crab in almost unbearable conditions, Alaska crab fishermen pull into Dutch Harbor, a geographic conundrum planted halfway along the pearl necklace of islands known as the Aleutian Chain, which extends westward from Alaska to the Kamchatka peninsula. So far west that it’s almost in Asia and so far south that it’s almost balmy (January temperatures range from 25°F to 35°F; summers range from 43°F to 53°F), Dutch Harbor lies on Amaknak Island and is linked by a short bridge to nearby Unalaska, population 4,300. The two areas have separate zip codes but function effectively as a single, very remote community 800 miles west of Anchorage, complete with a roster of local characters and a legendary barroom or two. Most social activity these days seems to revolve around the Grand Aleutian Hotel.
When I visited Dutch Harbor at the end of October, the beginning of crab season, I was part of an annual chefs’ tour hosted by The Crab Broker, a national distributor of premium seafood products. Along with some two dozen others, I was stranded at the hotel when our flights to Anchorage were cancelled for reasons ranging from weather and staffing issues to others for which the airline representative who doubled as a bartender at the Grand Aleutian claimed she was “not at liberty to divulge.” Days later, we pooled our resources to charter a flight when the mayor of the town, a former employee of the processing plant we were to tour, intervened on our behalf and persuaded the airline to pick up the charter and honor our tickets.
The area was originally inhabited by Unangan people, now known as Aleuts, who lived in two dozen settlements on the islands. Stocked with artifacts from local archaeological digs, a small museum in Dutch Harbor affords a glimpse of how the people coaxed a living from this treeless place before many of them were enslaved by Russian fur traders and transported to the Pribilof Islands to harvest fur seals. In 1825, a Russian Orthodox church was built in Unalaska and the founding priest, Ivan Veniaminov, translated scripture into Aleut. Rebuilt in the mid-1850s, the church was christened as the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Ascension, and it stands today as the oldest Russian Orthodox cruciform-style church in North America and the most recognizable landmark in the area.
Today the area is home to people from at least 40 different countries, who come to work at the fish processing plants. The harbor boasts the largest volume of seafood of any port in the United States. (In terms of dollars, the port sometimes comes in second to New Bedford, Massachusetts, but in terms of volume, no place can match Dutch Harbor.) During the summer months, thousands of workers keep processing plants running night and day to handle the millions of pounds of pollock that are transformed into fish sticks and sarimi. I visited the Unisea plant, specifically to see king crab being processed, but got caught up instead in the staggering mass of pollock that moves through the place—1,200 to 1,300 metric tons daily add up to 150,000 metric tons for a season. More than two million pounds of fishmeal produced in a single season provides a lucrative by-product, with most of it sold to freshwater eel farmers in Asia. And more than a million gallons of fish oil becomes a kind of bio-diesel that fuels the plant.
Pollock may constitute the largest catch in the region, but king crab is more lucrative. A good season can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for each fisherman, which explains their willingness to risk everything for an opportunity to draw their quota of crab from these perilous waters. During the 1970s, the first real boom years for king crab fishermen, fortunes were made and seemingly spent virtually overnight. Prices soared from 38 cents a pound to $1.23, and even young deckhands could count on a $50,000 season. By 1980, a fleet of 236 boats landed 130 million pounds of king crab in less than six weeks, according to Joel Gay in Alaska Geographic. But a sudden, inexplicable crash in the population the following year marked the beginning of the modern era. Alaska fisheries biologists speculate that expanding populations of cod and salmon, predator fish that eat young crab, and rising water temperatures have played a role in the failure of the crab stocks to regenerate. Even though the quota was lowered and the season shortened, since 1984 catches have rarely exceeded 15 million pounds.
|King in a can.The potential of king crab is just starting to be tapped, feels Honey Konicoff, vice president of marketing at Phillips Foods, a Baltimore-based seafood restaurant and processing house. “As a crack and eat crab,” she says, “king crab can’t be beat.” But Phillips Foods is hoping to expand the use of king crab to chefs by making it available as a one-pound pasteurized, chilled package of leg meat and knuckle meat combined, a form they can use in recipes.”Up to now, the labor of cracking and picking king crab has been too expensive and time-consuming for chefs to do much with it,” she notes. “I mean, they just weren’t going to do it. “Right now, king is at the point where blue crab was when we came into the market with our pasteurized product. We did not originate pasteurization; the process already existed. On the Eastern Shore [of Maryland], when we started out, you sold the crab whole or you cracked it and sold it. Traditionally, the only meat that was pasteurized was what did not sell the day it was picked, so we never went for that stuff. Then, when supplies in the Chesapeake Bay dwindled, we found a new source of blue crab in Asia and started working on a way to perfect the pasteurization process.”When you start to tweak the method to preserve the texture and flavor, you get a whole different product. “Now we’re picking to pasteurize, because where we pick it [in Asia] there’s no market for fresh.”Phillip’s pasteurized crabmeat in the black, one-pound can is familiar to chefs and consumers who shop at Costco. This spring, Phillips will be launching the king crabmeat to its wholesale customers. “King crab’s popularity is growing and growing and we want to make it easier for professionals to tap into that demand.”—G.A.|
Meanwhile, stocks of Russian king crab have seemingly swelled. Certainly the catch has. Originally stocked in the Barents Sea in the early 1960s as an experiment to provide a new fishery for the Soviets, the transplants vanished for a few years, then after a decade or so, started turning up in Norwegian fishing nets. Apparently, the species thrived in its new territory, and individual specimens seemed to grow larger than they had in the Gulf of Alaska. The fishery has been poorly monitored since the breakup of the Soviet Union, but Russian and Norwegian scientists say that the king crab’s territory is expanding toward the pole and down the coast of Norway.
Russian and Norwegian crab fishermen share the same quota, but Russians regularly challenge the quotas and the statistics that determine when those quotas have been met. “Tracking the fishery, or traceability, is complicated by the fact that the fishing period spans two separate calendar years and incorporates a total allowable catch for not one, but two years,” reports Arni Thomson of the Alaska Crab Coalition, which represents 45 vessel owners. From his office in Seattle, he monitors not only Alaska crab fishing but Russian and Norwegian crab fishing, which impacts the price of crab in U.S. markets. This year, large king crab legs from Russia have virtually flooded the market, at about half the cost of Alaska king crab.
Most of the Russian catch was initially marketed to Japanese consumers, but in the last few years, since rationalization, Russian crab has been processed and sold in the United States through a complicated system that bypasses the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws and guarantees a steady supply of frozen crab legs to U.S. markets. Consumers are hard-pressed to know if the crab is domestic or foreign, or even legal. “Russian and Norwegian sources have estimated the amount of illegal fishing of king crab in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea to be twice the legal catch,” reports Thomson.
Naturally, this is disconcerting to Alaska crab fishermen, especially coming on the heels of rationalization. The smaller fleet is bound to sell its catch to a group of U.S. processors who hold exclusive purchase rights under the rationalization laws. Under the new system, there have been no fatalities and stocks are showing signs of resurgence, but if the new system is safer and saner, it might be less alluring too.
Gone are the days when an inexperienced deck hand could make an overnight fortune. These days, grueling hours spent under life-threatening conditions are still the norm, but the wages aren’t what they used to be. With the catch down to 10 percent of what it was in the glory days and prices down by perhaps as much as 30 percent, no one’s getting rich quick on king crab.
Still, Alaska crab fishermen can boast delivery of an extraordinary product from an amazing place. There are differences between the Alaska and Russian king crab. “If you’re buying fresh king crab,” explains Eric Donaldson of The Crab Broker, whose client list includes Las Vegas catering firms, high-end restaurants, and grocery stores, “then you know it’s Alaskan, because all of the Russian catch is frozen at sea.” Also, because it’s cooked in fresh water instead of salt water, “Alaska crab is sweeter; the Russian crab is saltier.”
When they’re paying a premium price, typically more than $30 a pound for fresh king crab legs, chefs want to keep it simple and not risk mucking things up with presentations that might mask its delicate flavor. So king crab legs are almost always served very simply, with nothing more than drawn butter. But there are exceptions.
Jeremy Anderson from Elliott’s Oyster House on Pier 56 in Seattle celebrates the arrival of fresh Alaska king crab every season with a grand display of the legs on ice that’s billed as the world’s longest oyster bar. He also offers several specials built around the seldom seen “crab tails,” a unique piece of meat drawn from the tail of the king crab. In the kitchen at the Grand Aleutian Hotel in Dutch Harbor, he prepared some of the tail meat with a spicy Thai red curry sauce. In the same kitchen, Styczek rolled some of the leg meat in paper-thin pastry and served the king crab strudel with a puree of cauliflower and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts.
As soon as I returned from Dutch Harbor, a few days late and considerably humbled, I ordered a case of fresh Alaska king crab and started devising innovative ways to use them up. The generous supply of meat from the body of the crab and the juncture where the legs come together can be used to make the most incredible crab cakes. And the leg meat, delectable enough with melted butter, is downright sublime when it’s suspended in Sauternes jelly.