Alaska king crab fishing takes place during the fall months in the waters off the coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The commercial harvest takes place for a very short season, and the catch is shipped worldwide. Large quantities of king crab are also caught in Russian and international waters.
In 1980, at the peak of the king crab industry, Alaska’s fisheries produced up to 200,000,000 pounds (91,000,000 kg) of crab. However, by 1983, the total size of the catch had decreased by up to 90% in some places.Various theories have been proposed for the precipitous drop in the crab population, including overfishing, warmer waters, and increased fish predation.As a result, the current season is very short and in the 2010 season only 24,000,000 pounds (11,000,000 kg) of red king crab were landed.
Alaska crab fishing is very dangerous, and the death rate among anglers is approximately 80 times the death rate of the average worker. It is suggested that, on average, one crab fisherman dies weekly during the seasons.
Types of commercially valuable king crab
In Alaska, three species of king crab are commercially caught: the red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus, found in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound and the Kodiak archipelago), the blue king crab (Paralithodes platypus, St. Matthew Island, and the Pribilof Islands) and golden king crab (Lithodes aequispinus, Aleutian Islands). The red king crab is the most precious of the three for its meat. A fourth variety of king crab, the scarlet king crab (Lithodes couesi), is too small and rare to be commercially viable, despite the fact that its meat is considered sweet and tasty.Specific size requirements must be met: only certain types of king crab are legal at different times of the year and only males can be kept.
The most popular crab fishing months occur between October and January. The time allotted for one season continued to decrease: At one point, the red crab season only lasted four days. After 2005, each boat received a quota based on its catch from previous years and how many crabs are available to catch. The fleet went from 251 ships to 89. Currently the seasons last from two to four weeks.
Rationalization: derby vs. share
After the 2005 season, the Alaskan crab industry went from a derby-style season to a quota system. This transition is known as rationalization. Under the old style of derby, a large number of teams competed with each other to catch crabs for a restrictive period of time. Under the new Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system, established owners have received quotas that they can fill at a more relaxed pace. In theory, it is intended to be safer, which was the main reason for the change in fishing rules. The transition to the quota system was also expected to increase the value of the crab, by limiting the available crab market. An influx of foreign crab denied some of these gains during the 2006 season.
The streamlining process left many crews out of work as the owners of many small vessels felt that their allocated quotas were too small to cover operating expenses; During the first season under the IFQ system, the fleet was reduced from more than 250 vessels to around 89 mostly larger vessels with high quotas.
Equipment and process
Commercial fishing boats are between 12 and 75 m (39 to 246 ft) long, are equipped with hydraulic systems to lift the catch, and can withstand the icy climate of the Bering Sea.Each fishing boat sets its own sailing schedule during the crab fishing season, often staying out for days or weeks at a time.
Anglers use a box-shaped trap called a pot that consists of a steel frame covered with nylon mesh. Each pot weighs between 600 and 800 lbs (270 and 360 kg) and a boat can carry between 150 and 300 pots.  Fish, usually herring or cod, are placed inside as bait and then the pot sinks to the bottom of the sea where the king crab resides. The pots are dropped in a straight line (known as “string”) for easier recovery. Red and blue king crabs can be found anywhere between the intertidal zone and a depth of 100 fathoms (600 ft; 180 m). Golden king crabs live at depths between 100 and 400 fathoms (180–720 m, 600–2400 ft). The location of the pot is marked on the surface by a buoy that is then used for recovery. After allowing the pots to rest on the seafloor (generally a day or two for red and blue king crabs, longer for gold king crabs), the pots are dragged back to the surface using a hydraulic winch with a pulley at the end called “lock”
The pot is then brought aboard the boat and the crew classifies the king crab. Any crab that does not meet regulatory requirements is returned. Crabs are stored live in a holding tank until the boat reaches shore, where they are sold. If the weather becomes too cold, live crabs can freeze and explode. If left in the tank for too long, they will damage and possibly kill each other as they can be cannibals.Even the rocking of the boat can cause damage to the crab, so boards are inserted into the holds to prevent excessive side-to-side movement. If a crab dies in the hold for any reason, it releases toxins that can kill other crabs. If the crew cannot eliminate the dead crabs, they can poison the entire tank and ruin the catch.
Deckhands are paid a percentage of the profits after the owner’s share is accounted for. This can range from nothing to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the crop. The so-called ‘greenhorns’ (sailors in their first fishing season) receive a fixed sum of money.