Article reprinted with written permission of Margaret Bauman of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Article written by by Margaret Bauman
DEADLIEST CATCH CAPTAIN SAYS CRAB RATIONALIZATION WORKS
Veteran crab boat Capt. Keith Colburn was out on the cold, choppy waters of the Bering Sea once again in mid-October, ready to harvest wild Alaskan king crab.Fishing is like hunting,” said Colburn in a telephone interview from Dutch
| Veteran crab fisherman Keith Colburn is one of the crab captains featured in the popular Discovery Channel series “The Deadliest Catch.” Colburn set up a Web site, http://www.crabwizard.com, to accommodate fans of the show. Photo courtesy of Keith and Florence Colburn
Harbor. It was the eve of his final preparations to get his 155-foot by 30-foot fishing vessel Wizard to go to sea.
“You never know what you are going to get until you get out there,” he said. “You are constantly looking and searching. There is so much involved in crab fishing. It is actually a very complex thing. That keeps me energized.”
The crab fishery has been good to Colburn, whose annual catch is always substantial. Colburn, who fishes for king, tanner and snow crab, is part of the Alaska Crab Producers Co-op, and serves on the Pacific Northwest Crab Advisory Committee.
To his mind, the controversial crab rationalization program, now under review by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, has made a good fishery better.
“Overall, I feel it is a safer fishery,” he said. “We work so far offshore that we are still at the mercy of Mother Nature. The Coast Guard is doing a phenomenal job out there.”
Colburn had much praise for the U.S. Coast Guard, for keeping at least one cutter stationed on the fishing groups during the season, plus an emergency response helicopter stationed at Cold Bay during the red king crab season, and at St. Paul during the snow crab season.
“In the past five to 10 years, they have helped raise the awareness of fishermen with preseason inspections and classes they have offered,” he said. “What they do is go through the five most important emergency procedures. It’s been very informative for the fleet. As captains we think we know it all, but it’s not a bad idea for the Coast Guard to come down and go over it. It’s a double check for what the captains should be doing.”
Crabbing by the shares
Colburn got his start in the crab fishery in 1985, and worked his way up from the deck to the wheelhouse, and finally into ownership of a crab boat. Colburn and his wife, Florence, are the sole shareholders in the Wizard, which they purchased from John Jorgensen in 2005, just prior to the institution of the crab rationalization plan. Now the Colburns and Jorgensen work together in a new partnership, where Jorgensen is the quota shareowner and Colburn is the vessel owner.
“All the crab I have is leased, except for a small amount of vessel owner and crew shares in small blocks,” he said. “The norm in the fleet would be similar to myself. When the program came out, we were allocated crew shares, which is a very small amount. Many of the captains in the fleet are also minority owners of the vessels they operate.”
So Colburn, like many others, leases a substantial amount of A shares, and B shares and some C shares as well.
A shares refer to the bulk of the harvest, which must be delivered only to processors with processing quota shares. B shares and C shares can be delivered to anyone the shareholders or leasers want to sell them to.
Colburn, a member of the Alaska Crab Producers Co-op, at the helm of the Wizard during the crab harvesting season on the Bering Sea. Photo courtesy of Keith and Florence Colburn
“B and C shares give you an opportunity to fish, to have ownership in the resources and get more vested in the resource,” Colburn said. “To me it is a positive avenue for guys who are just starting out.”
Crabbing to fame
Colburn, who has worked on the Wizard for 18 years, and as captain for 12 years, also has benefited from the fame of being one of the crab captains featured in the Discovery Channel series “The Deadliest Catch.” His Web site, at http://www.crabwizard.com, accommodates scores of fans who want to know about the Colburns, the Wizard and the fishery.
Colburn’s wife, Florence, said she felt that the Wizard was chosen as one of the vessels to be featured in “The Deadliest Catch” television series for a couple of reasons.
“It’s probably one of the prettiest boats out there, and one of the biggest,” she said. “I think they were intrigued by being able to work well on the boat, because there is a lot of room, and it lent itself well to the mechanics of production, and they could get a lot of the drama because it was such a big platform.”
The Wizard itself has an interesting history. It was commissioned to be built for the U.S. Navy in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1945 for use in World War II. After the war, the Wizard was mothballed in the Boston harbor, while some ships were used for target practice or for building artificial reefs off the eastern seaboard.
In 1978, Jorgensen purchased the vessel and had it converted to fish for crab in the Bering Sea. Jorgenson renamed the vessel, which had been known as YO-210, after his grandfather’s longliner, which was one of the premier cod and halibut boats in the Seattle fleet of the early and mid 20th century.
It was from Jorgenson, whose father and grandfather emigrated from Norway to Alaska in the pioneer days of commercial fishing, that Colburn learned his trade. Jorgenson told him to tune out the rest of the fleet and follow his instincts, and he did.
In 2002, Colburn and his crew went 200 miles farther north than anyone else and found themselves fishing alone, next to freight car-sized ice chunks. It proved a record year, with Colburn and his crew harvesting 540,000 pounds of snow crab in a year where the average catch was 130,000 pounds, and the second highest catch was 300,000 pounds.
The risky strategy paid off again in 2004, when the Wizard went far north again, harvesting 400,000 pounds of crab, while the fleet average was 125,000 pounds.
Jorgenson opted to sell the Wizard to the Colburns when the crab rationalization legislation passed. He no longer needed to incur the costs of operating the vessel, said Florence Colburn. Jorgenson, who now leases all his shares to the Colburns, could live well off the royalties of his quota shares, allocated based on the catch history of each vessel, she said. For the 12 years preceding passage of the legislation, the Wizard, with Colburn as captain, was among the top shellfish harvesters.
While Colburn is pleased with the privatization of the crab fishery to date, he also applauded the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for doing that they said they would do, beginning the process of re-examining various aspects of the rationalization plan.
“It is the most complicated fisheries program ever devised on the planet,” Colburn said. “We will see what they come up with.”
Meanwhile, Colburn said, the changes include moving from a transient workforce to a full-time professional workforce.
“Instead of guys trying to slip in and work for a short period of time and get out as soon as possible, we have guys working six to eight months a year,” he said. “We are back to where I was the first seven to eight years of working on deck.
“What has gone away is the opportunity to fly in, work two weeks on a boat and not do any of the muscle work. The hardest part of the job is physically hauling crab pots, but that’s the part of the job where you are making money,” he said.
While there are fewer jobs available, the wages are higher for those who have jobs.
“You can kind of pencil out what you are going to make,” he said. “It’s a sense of security today, when you come into Dutch Harbor on a boat, that you have a real idea of what wages you will make.”
As the captain as well as boat owner, Colburn said he is constantly looking for new crew. “If a guy wants the number of a boat that needs a deckhand, I’ve got one right now,” he said. “I have two guys on my boat this year who are greenhorns.”
As for the reduced size of the fleet, Colburn said boats that were unsafe or struggling to get by, whose crews weren’t making any money either, needed to be tied up.
“The boats that have tied up, the majority of them shouldn’t have been out there to begin with,” he said. “By tying these boats up, we made the fishery safer.”