Anthropology and History

The Crab Fishermen Of Alaska

Image via The Last Frontier High seas beset by towering waves, swell churning up hazardous freezing waters, and heavy machinery tied to treacherous equipment. Reasons enough

posted on 04/22/2009
Karl Fabricius
Scribol Staff

1Photo:
Image via The Last Frontier

High seas beset by towering waves, swell churning up hazardous freezing waters, and heavy machinery tied to treacherous equipment. Reasons enough why Alaskan crab fishing ranks as the deadliest job in the America – if not the world. Even such descriptions do little justice to the extremity of the conditions confronted by the fishermen out on the storm-ridden Bering Sea during the cruel Arctic winter.

Relentless and unforgiving Bering Sea: shot taken from the Captain’s viewpoint
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Image via Fish Ex

Loggers, flight engineers and airplane pilots step aside. When it comes to pure, untainted, life-threatening risk, no other job compares to Alaskan crab fishing. Commercial fishing in general consistently has one of the highest fatality rates, but Alaskan crab fishing is particularly perilous, with upwards of 300 fatalities per 100,000 workers each year over the past couple of decades. The vast majority of these deaths are down to drowning – either from falling overboard or as a result of boats capsizing or sinking – with hypothermia another killer threat the water holds in store.

Schooner crashing through wave: it took a 12-man crew 2 days to de-ice the boat
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Image via Fish Ex

There are other dangers too. Crippling injuries caused by the hydraulic machinery the fishermen have to work with are commonplace. Then there are the crab pots. Weighing well over a ton when full, these massive, steel, box-shaped traps must be hauled up and over the side of the boat, where they swing precariously as the fishermen get to grips with their bulk. The pots can easily knock men overboard, where death follows quickly. Getting tangled in the fishing gear throws up similar dangers, while the harsh weather conditions and slippery decks – frequently frozen over – only make matters worse.

Off the Aleutian Islands coast, a crab boat works her way through a sea of ice
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Image: Paulina Bates via Fish Ex

Because of fishing regulations and the weather, the crab fishing season is very brief – currently 2 to 4 weeks – and this compounds the danger the fishermen face. With such a small window in which to catch their quotas, the men work extremely long hours with little rest – as many as 40 hours out of every 50. The resulting levels of fatigue make accidents inevitable. This said, the job has grown less dangerous in recent years due partly to heightened safety measures requiring fishing boats to carry survival equipment on board. In 2007, as few as 128 per 100,000 Alaskan fishermen perished on the job.

A 130-foot crab boat fishing in heavy seas, the wind blowing at roughly 90 mph
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Image via Fish Ex

Why do the fishermen risk life and limb on the violent seas? Mouths to feed. If paid a percentage of a boat’s profit, the fishermen can earn tens of thousands of dollars – though of course they can also end up with nothing. A steep decline in the population of Alaskan king crabs could also jeopardise the fishermen’s income. In 1983, the total size of the catch was sixty times lower than in 1980. Overfishing and warmer waters brought on by climate change have both been blamed for this dramatic drop, but the true cause remains a mystery. One thing is certain however: Alaskan crab fishing is not for the faint of heart.

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Image via The Last Frontier

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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Karl Fabricius
Scribol Staff