WASHINGTON — The crabbers are getting, well, crabby.
With the offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service closed because of the federal government shutdown, fishermen have been unable to get permits for the Alaska king crab season, which begins Tuesday.
“Instead of a fiscal cliff, right now we’re facing a fishing cliff in the Bering Sea unless Congress acts before the season is scheduled to start on Oct. 15,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Washington state.
“This is the first time in my 28 years of fishing that I haven’t been in the Bering Sea in October getting ready to go fish,” said Keith Colburn, a crabber who journeyed to Capitol Hill on Friday to testify at a hearing on the impact of the shutdown.
Although the closing of national parks has grabbed the headlines, the government has suspended a wide range of lesser-known functions — often carried out by obscure agencies – but still critical to various groups, from farmers to physicists.
The shutdown’s effects have been felt as far away as Antarctica, where a research program has been put on ice.
In California, citrus growers are worried about running out of pesticides for crops because Environmental Protection Agency inspectors have been furloughed.
“One of the people sitting home this week on furlough without salary is a NIST employee named Dr. David Wineland, who I had never heard of,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said at Friday’s hearing, referring to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The Nobel Prize committee, however, had heard of Wineland, Rockefeller said, “and they gave him a Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work on atomic physics. Well, he’s just sitting at home, can’t go to his lab.”
A federal database called E-Verify that employers use to check the immigration status of job applicants has been dark since the first day of the shutdown.
“Imagine the chaos, even when it comes back and everyone is scrambling at once to verify people they didn’t verify during the shutdown,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington-based group that promotes the interests of small businesses in the immigration debate.
More than 409,000 employers in the country use the database to check the immigration status of new hires.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, like its better-known counterpart the National Transportation Safety Board, has suspended its investigations, including an inquiry into a massive fire last year at a refinery in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Agricultural reports that farmers rely upon to make decisions such as how to price crops and which commodities to grow are unavailable because the National Agricultural Statistics Service is closed.
And in the District of Columbia, starting Saturday, no winning D.C. Lottery tickets will be cashed until after the shutdown is over. “We regret the inconvenience,” D.C. Lottery officials said.
As for the crabbers, they say they prepare for a lot of contingencies — bad weather and mechanical problems, for example — but they never figured on a government shutdown.
Mark Gleason, the head of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a Seattle-based trade association, was at the Capitol on Friday attempting to put a personal face on the impact of the shutdown. He described his members as “in disbelief and in disgust” over the shutdown.
Dozens of boats are already in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, waiting for their permits. The crabbers say they cannot wait too long for the paperwork before they risk losing the lucrative Japanese holiday market for their catch.
“There’s just a big sense of frustration among the fleet that this situation is occurring, and we’re caught in the cross hairs,” said Ed Poulsen, a Seattle-based boat owner.
The threat to the start of the crabbing season has prompted Alaska and Washington state lawmakers to appeal to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to dip into leftover funds to issue fishing permits, noting that the fishermen are “fully paying for the costs of managing these fisheries” through fees.
“We have been racking up bills getting ready to go fishing,” Colburn, who has appeared on the Discovery Channel series “Deadliest Catch,” said at the Friday hearing. “If we’re tied to the docks waiting for the government, we can’t pay those bills. I’m a small businessman in a big ocean with big bills. I need to go fishing.”