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'Hanging On by Our Fingernails' : Culinary Gold Rush Ends for King Crab Fishermen

October 20, 1985|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

KODIAK, Alaska — A new joke began making the rounds here a year ago. It goes like this: A Seattle bank that had financed much of Alaska's beleaguered crab fleet now offers you a choice of two gifts when you open an account. You can have a crab boat or a toaster. Crab fishermen advise you to take the toaster.

The joke is told with rue on this rugged North Pacific island, which heralds itself as "the seafood processing capital of the world." It was here that men tied their fates to a prickly backed crab called the Alaskan king, a meaty, sweet shellfish whose population soared and whose popularity with diners seemed unshakable.

In the 1970s, the harvest was unprecedented. Deckhands poured champagne and snorted cocaine. Fishermen chartered Learjets. Retailers did a brisk business in earrings dangling with king crab teeth.

Forgotten were the lessons of a region where fortunes rise and fall at each new ripple of nature.

However, even as the harvests grew bigger and bigger, a shift of nature that some said originated as far away as the Equator had already begun to alter the ocean in a way that would bring this economy crashing down.

The Alaskan king crab's population plummeted. The statewide catch, 195 million in 1980, collapsed to 90 million the next year and finally to 10 million this year. Crab fishing was prohibited altogether in Kodiak in 1982 and halted throughout most of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea in 1983.

"All of us in the fleet are just hanging on by our fingernails," says Kodiak fisherman Harold Jones, 62. "My vessels have gone into bankruptcy."

Biologists blamed a variety of events, varying from El Nino, a change in ocean currents that started at the Equator, to a crab disease compared in virulence to the bubonic plague. Even a herpes-related virus became a suspected culprit.

Fishermen themselves dismissed much of the scientific sleuthing and proposed their own theories. The most popular was that the crab was just hiding someplace.

The cause of the rich harvests that set off the boom was easier to trace. Biologists believe it began in 1972, an abnormally cold year in which the crab larvae flourished. By the late 1970s, the offspring had grown to adults and jostled each other on the crowded ocean bottom.

Word of the bounty spread and fortune hunters headed here and to Dutch Harbor, a Bering seaport where Kodiak fishermen had started a crab fishery, to cash in on the ocean's offering. It was a culinary gold rush that was to turn both ports upside down.

Filet Mignon of Crabs

Cage after cage hoisted from the ocean floor brimmed with the enormous creatures, beloved as the filet mignon of crabs. Bells regularly sounded in harbor taverns, signaling free drinks for the house. Crab vessels rose fourfold in value and deckhands boasted earnings of more than $100,000 a season.

The money-flashing newcomers were not entirely welcome. Long-time Kodiak fishermen eyed them with disdain. They flinched when journalists attached the label "blue-eyed Arabs" to the newcomers. The old-timers disliked the competition and the dizzy spending seemed out of place. In Kodiak, residents were accustomed to distinguishing wealthy fishermen only by the kind of pickup trucks they drove or the number of snowmobiles in their yards.

Fisherman David Herrnsteen, 44, recalls with bitterness the financiers who arrived from New York and purchased crab boats as investments for doctors, lawyers and members of the film industry. They became known as "the absentees."

Other fishermen, who would not otherwise have entered the business, took advantage of a government loan program to buy crabbers. Old-timers shake their heads as they recall the five fishermen who chartered a Learjet one weekend in Dutch Harbor to go to Anchorage to watch a football game.

'Astronomical Profit'

Back then, though, the crab harvest seemed big enough and lucrative enough for everyone. Prices remained high even as the supply rose.

"The profit was absolutely astronomical for the fishermen," says Richard Lauber, vice president and Alaska manager for the Pacific Seafood Processors Assn. "The king crab was a big deal. People loved it and they paid tremendous prices for it. It just caught on. I kept thinking personally that the market was going to collapse and people were going to rebel against the price, but it just kept going up and up and up."

In 1981, biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service here advised the community that the crab population was so low that the coming season was threatened. However, few believed the forecast.

'Looked Pretty Drastic'

"I'm not even sure I believed it," said Robert Otto, one of the scientists who made the prediction. "It looked pretty drastic then. We looked at the statistics a lot of different ways and it all came out the same. . . . And then when the decline started, it went twice as fast as we we expected."

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