Don't know much about crab fishing in Alaska? We gathered a few facts to give you some background on one of the deadliest jobs in the country.
- The most lucrative Alaskan crab fisheries occur in the fall and winter; the seasons are often short, lasting less than four weeks. In the Bering Sea specifically, the two most active months are October and January.
- Each season, approximately 250 crab fishing boats converge on Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in search of Alaskan king crab.
- Crab vessels cost several million dollars to build, and tens of thousands of dollars to operate annually.
- The boats range in size from 40 to 200 feet; each crew typically consists of one captain and three to nine deckhands.
- Because the sonar used on most fishing boats is downward-pointing, it doesn't detect crabs that are right against or buried in the ocean floor. Furthermore, since it is impossible to predict where adult male crabs will be (unless it's spring, which is mating season), captains must rely on intuition to find the best crabbing location.
- To catch the crabs, fishermen use 700-pound steel traps ("pots") baited with ground herring, squid, sardines and cod, which are dropped 400 feet below the ocean's surface.
- On average, the pots measure 7 feet by 7 feet by 3 feet, and soak anywhere from five to 24 hours before being hauled back on deck.
- Only male king crabs measuring 6.5 inches and snow crabs measuring 4 inches from spine to spine are kept; females and juveniles are tossed back into the sea.
- In some fisheries, as many as six crabs are discarded for each legal male kept. Such handling of the discarded crabs can result in distress, injury and possibly death to the crabs.
- As they try to get to the bait, crabs often injure each other. A seriously injured crab serves as bait to the others, who will eat it. In fact, "ghost pots" — pots that are lost at sea — will continue to attract and kill crabs through this "self-baiting" process.
- Ghost pots pose a serious problem; in some places they are as dense as 50 per square kilometer, and may catch and kill as many crabs in a year as the fishery does.
- Sometimes crabs die during the fishing process, something fishermen try to avoid since they spoil before they can be sold. However, if the crabs are kept in a tank of circulating seawater, as most are, a few dead crabs won't harm the others.
- Boats must, as a matter of course, unload hundreds of pounds of "deadloss" after a trip to the fishing grounds.
The Crab Count Vs. The Skipper's Wager
Diehard fans often ask how a given boat can have a different standing in the "crab count" than they do in the "Skipper's Wager." The reason for the discrepancy has to do with the difference between "total crab poundage" and "crabs per pot." The bigger boats tend to lead in the crab count, which measures total poundage, due to the following:
- Their decks carry more pots.
- Their holds are bigger so they can accumulate more crab before having to stop down for an offload.
- Large boats tend to have larger crews capable of turning and burning, i.e. quickly fishing numerous pots.
The Skipper's Wager which measures "crabs per pot" is any man's game. Whoever catches their first 100,000 pounds of crab in the least amount of pots wins. In this game, developing strategies to maximize "pot average" is paramount.
- Boats will often "prospect," which is the process of dropping a few, widely spaced pots to "test the waters." The area where a prospect pot pulls up the most crab will be where the Skippers concentrate their gear.
- Another method to kick up pot average is to increase "soak time" i.e. Skippers will allow the pots to sit for a couple of days before pulling them in order to allow crab to find the pot and crawl inside.
Bottom line is the "Skippers Wager" is a game of averages where as the "Crab Count" has to do with a boat's capacity and speed.
- More than 80 percent of the fatalities Alaskan fishermen suffer on the job are due to drowning — either from falling overboard or as a result of a boat accident.
- A crewman's wages are often based on a share or percentage of harvest earnings. A greenhorn may earn anywhere from 1.5 to 5 percent of the net value of the harvest, after operating expenses and the owner's and skipper's shares (often totalling 50 percent or more) have been subtracted.
- When based on percentage of net profit, an Alaskan fisherman may earn somewhere between zero and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on location and type of fishery and the worker's skills. Other boats offer a daily rate (typically $50 to $100 per day) instead.
- According to the Alaska Department of Labor, crew members are typically expected to purchase their own gear, which can add up to several hundred dollars. This includes wet-weather gear ($100 per set), rubber boots ($40 to $70 per pair), gloves ($2 to $12 per pair), wrist covers or sleeves ($5 per set) and a sleeping bag ($70 to $200).
- In addition, some crew members are charged a share of their boat's operating expenses — food, fuel, bait and ice.
- In Alaska, crew members are responsible for obtaining their own commercial fishing licenses, the cost of which can range between $60 and $125, depending on whether the individual is a state resident or not.
- According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the red king crab fishery is Alaska's top shellfish fishery.
- Since 1959, when Alaska became a state, nearly 2 billion pounds of red king crab worth $1.6 billion have been harvested from Alaska's waters, making red king crabs the second most valuable species to fishers during this period (red salmon being the most valuable).
- Crab quotas vary each year, depending on population size. In 2004, the harvest was 15.4 million pounds of red king crab, 5.7 million pounds of golden king crab and 20.4 million pounds of snow crab.
- At $4.70 per pound, the 2004 catch of red king crab was worth $65.8 million at the dock.