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With 'Deadliest Catch' cameras onboard, crabbers head to Bristol Bay

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Discovery Channel photo

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery opened Monday with a larger quota, Hollywood on board again, and an increasing presence of Alaska Natives and Alaskan-owned boats.

“We call it the Yupikest catch,” said Morgen Crowe, executive director of the Coastal Villages Region Fund (CVRF), the community development quota group in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. CVRF has purchased three crabbers, the Bering Sea, Arctic Sea, and North Sea, and about a third of combined crew members are Yupik Eskimo deckhands. While none are captains yet, that’s only a matter of time and training, Crowe said, adding that the crew earned $50,000 to $80,000 during the last snow crab season, Crowe said.

The Western Alaska Community Development Quota (CDQ) program allocates a percentage of all Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands quotas for groundfish, prohibited species, halibut, and crab to eligible communities. It allows western Alaska villages to participate and invest in fisheries in the Bering Sea and off the Aleutian Islands.

While CDQ group benefits are open to all residents of the region, Crowe noted that about 98 percent of the population of his region is Yupik. The CDQ program receives 10 percent of all Bering Sea commercial fishing quotas in the federally regulated fisheries, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Western Alaska isn't the only part of the state benefiting from the Alaskan ownership of boats fishing in Alaska. Crowe said the group’s fleet will be increasingly home ported in Seward, the Resurrection Bay town that’s a three-hour drive south of Anchorage. That move offended some in Seattle, the boats’ longtime home port.

CVRF also owns the factory trawler Northern Hawk and several longliners. The 2012 Bristol Bay red king crab quota is 7.8 million pounds in both the individual fishing quotas and community development quota fisheries, an increase of 19,000 pounds from last year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages the fishery. Fifty crab boats registered with the agency on Monday.

In other Bering Sea crab quotas announced this month by Fish and Game:

  • The St. Matthew Island blue king crab quota is 1.6 million pounds.
  • The Bering Sea snow crab quota is 66.4 million pounds, down 25 percent from last year.
  • There will be no Tanner crab season in the Bering Sea because of low stocks. 

Camera crews from the “Deadliest Catch” show on the Discovery Channel are aboard the fishing vessels Seabrooke, Time Bandit, Northwestern, Wizard, and a few others, according to Discovery spokeswoman Maggie Nye.

“Deadliest Catch” is produced by Original Productions, and will have camera crew not only on boats, but also helicopters, with the help of the Coast Guard, in St. Paul and Cold Bay. Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis in Kodiak said the photographers will accompany rescue flights when space is available on the helicopters, a relationship that generates good advertising for the Coast Guard recruiters, given the consistently high ratings of “Deadliest Catch.”

The Coast Guard cutter Sherman will patrol crab-fishing grounds, Francis said. In Unalaska, the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Detachment conducted about 40 fishing vessel-safety inspections in the week before the fishery opened, counting crab pots on board for compliance with loading limits, according to Lt. James Fothergill.

 Survival gear was also checked.

Crabbers overloaded with the 700-pound pots have capsized in the past, though the Bering Sea crab fishery has not seen a major catastrophe since 2005 when the fishing vessel Big Valley sank with multiple loss of life. Stepped-up Coast Guard safety inspections and the rationalization program are credited with reducing the mortality of crab fishermen.