Between October and January, fishing boats set out from Alaskan ports to catch various kinds of king crab. Although the industry is no longer what it once was, it is still a king crab fishing in Alaska is a profession that can earn a lucky and skilled captain and crew huge paychecks. It also stands as one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.
Commercial crab fishing involves sending a boat out into Alaskan or Aleutian coastal waters, or into the Bering Sea. There fisherman drop “pots,” or large crab traps made out of steel tubing and lined with nylon or wire netting. It is normal for a pot to weigh as much as 700 pounds. The interior of these pots are baited with chopped up herring or other small fish, and left on the sea bottom. Tied to each pot is a line topped with a marker float, so that the pot can be retrieved later. Each pot has an opening shaped and sized to the crab type to be caught. These openings admit crabs, but deny them escape. Smaller crabs can both get in and out. Alaskan crab pots usually have a bio-degradable section in their netting. If a pot is lost at sea, it will not go on catching and killing crabs to the detriment of the fishery.
Red king crab is caught in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound and along the northern coastal waters of the Aleutian Islands. Blue king crabs are found in a band of open sea stretching from the Pribilof Islands in the south to the Bering Strait in the north. Golden king crabs are found in an “E” shaped space of sea. While this “E” covers a vast area, the parts of sea where crabs can be found are relatively narrow. The stem of the E is made up of the entire Aleutian Island chain, including Dutch Harbor, setting for the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” series.
Everyone on a crab boat is paid a share of the boat’s net earnings. Therefore, a commercial crab fisherman’s earnings are directly related to the size of the catch and the prevailing market price at the time the crabs are brought in. The captain and the owner of the boat will take a share of the net profit of at least 50 percent, and often more. The crew divides the remainder, usually apportioned on the basis of experience. A new fisherman’s share may be anywhere from between 1.5 to 5 percent of the net profit. In practice, this could range from zero for a failed outing to tens of thousands of dollars for a very successful one.
Crab fishing in Alaskan waters peaked in 1980, with a catch of 100,000 tons. A typical crewman was bringing earning $80,000 (worth over $175,000 in 2009 dollars). Then the fishery suddenly collapsed in 1983. While it has recovered, that recovery has been only partial. The 2006-2007 season saw a catch of 9,150 tons.
According to CNN, fishing is ranked as the second most dangerous profession in America, and Alaskan crab fishing is in turn thought to be one of the most dangerous forms of fishing. All crab fishing takes place in Fall or Winter, when the Bering Sea is at its roughest and iciest. Crab fishermen pull long, grueling shifts, surrounded by heavy and dangerous equipment. The conditions combine to create a very dangerous profession indeed. More than 80 percent of Alaskan crab fishermen who are killed die by drowning.
Samira Gutoc is the founder and managing editor of Atlas and Co. She is also a content writer, blogger, poet, photographer and an editorial associate.