Shutdown shakes Alaska crab fishery

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska’s multimillion-dollar red king crab season opened Tuesday, but most of the participating boats remained at dock because federal managers who are supposed to set individual fishing quotas are among workers still furloughed in the government’s partial shutdown.

Only boats representing a tiny fraction of the total harvest will be heading out into the Bering Sea. For that community development program, quotas are assigned by the state, with only seven vessels signed up to fish as of Tuesday.

Crabbers in the much larger haul fear that a late opening of the Bristol Bay fishery made famous by the Discovery Channel reality show, “Deadliest Catch,” will slash into their profits from the lucrative holiday market in Japan. For now, all crews can do is sit and wait at Alaska’s Dutch Harbor.

As far as “Deadliest Catch” captain Keith Colburn is concerned, the somber reality is that fishermen are being held politically hostage by “a bunch of knuckleheads” back East.

“We’re all idle,” Colburn told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Dutch Harbor. “Were sitting here scratching our heads, going, ‘Why are we not fishing?”’

Colburn’s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee last week was filmed by a Discovery crew for the season that begins in April. The effects of the furlough on the fishery also are being documented, but Colburn hopes it will turn out to be no more than a blip in the show, if anything. “Right now, this crab is sitting in the bottom of the Bering Sea waiting to be caught,” he said.

A National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement official, however, said there’s been no change as far as bringing furloughed NMFS workers back to work to set the quotas.

Catch limits are set by state fishery managers, but the national agency sets the individual allocations that have not been issued.

Meanwhile, co-owners are accumulating costs of about $1,000 a day for such expenses as insurance, moorage fees and food for crew members. But Mark Gleason, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, is advising frustrated fishermen to sit tight in Dutch Harbor. The Seattle-based trade association represents about 70 percent of the fishermen.

“I think people are still somewhat disillusioned and disgusted and kind of in disbelief that we’re in this situation,” Gleason said. “None of us consider that the fishery will be shut down due to a government shutdown.”

So far, there’s been no progress made in a request to U. S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to immediately begin the quota-issuing process for fishermen and processors.

In a letter to Pritzker, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and U.S. Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, noted that fishermen of Alaska’s red king crab “are fully paying for the costs of managing” the fishery through a cost recovery program administered by NOAA.

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