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The deadliest catch? A delayed catch for Bering Sea crabbers

Five crew members of the Kiska Sea wait in front of idle crab cages for permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The federal agency is closed due to the partial government shutdown. Photo via F/V (fishing vessel) Kiska Sea Facebook page.

Tumultuous waves and horrendous weather can’t stop crab fishermen. They’re tough and determined.

But tedious bickering and hours-long bargaining in Washington, D.C. can shut down an entire industry, leaving those crab fishermen and women ticked and disgusted.

The Alaska Red King Crab Season is set to open today. But the crab fishermen and women can’t set out for their catch until they get permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service. Like many other federal agencies, that’s closed due to the partial government shut down.

“In the fishing industry you factor in a lot of things that are out of your control. You expect to have weather issues, you expect volatility in the marketplace, you expect prices to go up or down, you expect fuel to go up or down, you expect swings in resource abundance. You plan for all those contingencies,” explains Mark Gleason, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

“Nobody could have planned for partial government shutdown that would impact our ability to go fish.”

Senate leaders are closing in on an agreement to reopen the government and forestall an economy-rattling default on U.S. financial obligations.

Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP leader Mitch McConnell could seal an agreement on Tuesday, just two days before the Treasury Department says it will run out of borrowing capacity.

The emerging pact would reopen the government through January 15 and permit the Treasury to borrow normally until early to mid-February.

“The general framework is there” between Reid and McConnell, says Senator Bob Corker. He said conversations with the House were continuing and he thought it would be midday Tuesday at the earliest before a plan was finalized.

Even if the government reopens today, it’ll still take until the end of the week to process the permits. Meanwhile, crab crews are sitting tied up at the docks “racking up bills.”

“There are costs related to keeping the boat tied up – there’s moorage, fuel for the generators, food for the crew. Our best estimates right now are conservatively that it’s going to cost about a thousand per day per boat,” Gleason says. “So if there’s 80 boats tied up waiting to go fish, once again conservatively that’s about $80,000 per day to the fleet to maintain this tie up.”

The Red King Crab season is worth about $100 million total. Out of that there’s a long supply chain of fishermen, shippers, longshoremen, cold storage facilities, restaurateurs, retailers, welders, mechanics, shipyard workers and others who all rely on that that fishery for an income.

“This fishery becomes very important to a lot of people in a big hurry,” says Gleason.

The season lasts about a month. For some fishermen, they’ll go out again at the beginning of the year for the Snow Crab season, but for others this is the majority of their paychecks for the year.

Local crabbers aren’t worried about Russia swooping in taking the crab.

“This is a fishery that occurs 100 percent within the exclusive economic zone of the United States. The Coast Guard is maintaining a strong presence in the Bering Sea,” Gleason says. “We don’t have any concerns that foreign vessels will come in and poach crab.

He is worried about Japanese wholesalers sourcing their crab from Russia instead of the United States.

A lot of this Red King crab is destined for either the Japanese or domestic holiday market.

“We need to have the crab caught, processed and on either a southbound or westbound freighter by the second week of November,” Gleason says. “The clock is ticking.”


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