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The History of Crabbing

posted: 04/11/12
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King crabs can be caught in a variety of locations throughout the world, including the waters around Alaska, Canada, Russia, Japan, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. Other popular types of crabs for the refined maritime palate are the Dungeness, Tanner and snow crabs, among others.

As many Deadliest Catch fans know, the rich waters off the Alaskan coast have long been a source of food and income. What is not so obvious is that they weren't always as regulated as they are now.

The Rise of Crabbing

Commercial fishing in Alaska started to take off in the late 1800s, with salmon and herring catches topping the list. In the first quarter of the 1900s, records of commercial crab harvests started cropping up and continue to this day.

In fact, one reason Alaskans pushed for statehood was to gain greater control over their natural resources, and in 1959, the territory was officially proclaimed a state. After that they quickly secured authority over the regional fisheries, and the state constitution places special emphasis on land, water and wildlife management. Now that responsibility is shared between state and federal agencies, as well as some international bodies.

The Derby Days

Fishing for crab off the Alaskan coast used to be done derby style. The season was short, just a few days long, and it was a race to haul in as many crabs — particularly red king crabs — as humanly possible. Hundreds of boats would jockey for position in a mad rush to make millions.

Nowadays, much of that has changed. After a shocking drop in the number of king crabs caught in the early 1980s, regulators have continually tightened restrictions on the industry. Overfishing and environmental changes are frequently cited as potential causes for the dramatic shift.

The New Age of Crabbing

Starting in 2005, a new program was launched that has had a profound impact on the crabbing industry of Alaska. A quota system set limits on how many crabs could be caught, and those quotas are determined by how many crabs were harvested in previous years. And, of course, there are pros and cons — critics and promoters — of the new policy.

For example, the crabbing season seems to be less dangerous than it used to be: boats have more time to collect crabs, so the reckless rushing has been largely defused. But there has also been a huge drop in the number of jobs available for fishermen. That's because boat owners don't need to hire as many crabbers to harvest in such a short window; they can even form collectives to pool their quota shares and gather a group's worth using just one ship and crew.

Debate continues concerning the overall success of the crab rationalization plan. In the meantime, other measures are also in place in an effort to ensure the continued success of crab populations. These include:

- Minimum size limits and male-only harvesting

- Specific fishing seasons and pot limits

- Increased monitoring, permit checking and on-board observers

- Reporting requirements and registration areas

- Tank and gear inspections

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