I just received the final version of Zed’s article that was published in this January issue of Pacific Fishing magazine. Zed wrote this piece as a response to an article from the November issue, written by Jim Stone, declaring crab rationalization a success. Zed strongly disagreed with Stone and, luckily, was able to share his personal experiences with rationalization. We are grateful to Pacific Fishing for publishing both sides of the story. It is important for the fishing community to have a forum such as this for open discussion, where a deckhand like Zed can debate fairly with a head of a large organization.
So, here it is- the article in it’s entirety:
Zed L. Blue
Aleutian crab ratz: A few oligarchs and far too many poor peasants
Editor’s note: In a recent issue, we printed the view of skipper Jim Stone that rationalization of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands crab fisheries was good. Now, we print an opposing viewpoint from Zed Blue.
I opened up Pacific Fishing and read an article titled, “Bering sea crab catch shares a keeper.” In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I knew I needed to tell the other side of the story, from the perspective of a life-long deckhand:
I started commercial fishing when I was 14, and I went to the Bering Sea for the first time when I was 18. Fishing was the culture I was raised in. My father’s a crabber and my mother used to seine.
Now I’m married with two young sons, and fishing is our sole means of income. Over the last few years, I’ve watched firsthand as crabbing turned from one of the most desired jobs in the industry, employing myself and many of my friends, into a corporate nightmare. We’ve seen almost 200 boats retire from the fleet, taking with them 1,000 jobs.
Those left are making dimes on the dollar.
Bering Sea crabbing was still derby style when I began. As is the nature of fishing, every year there were “heroes” and “zeros.” Some men made fortunes in brief periods, while others did poorly. A 68-foot boat could out-produce a 145-footer. With a permitted system, there’s room for upward movement. Start with a small boat, work hard, do well, buy a nicer boat and better gear — then repeat.
A larger, diversified fleet of different sizes from different ports is healthy for the fishing industry and local economies.
In 2004, for the last derby I was crabbing on the F/V Zone Five. The boat was a Cadillac with a good skipper and crew. We’d done well for opies, so we knew we’d have jobs under the new system. The company we worked for had a few other boats and had just acquired another larger boat.
There was a buyback that trimmed the fleet down.
Instead of waiting to see the effects of the buyback, the process of issuing quota started, giving 97 percent to the boat owners (who don’t need to be onboard), 3 percent to skippers (who have to be onboard), and 0 percent to the deckhands who risked their lives to harvest all of the quota.
Of that quota, 90 percent must be delivered to your historical processor and 10 percent to whomever you choose. To me, that didn’t sound anything like an American free market. It sounded more like the oligarchs of Russia. “We’ll take this resource from the people who care for it as their own. In the end, the workers shall prosper, but for now, shut up!”
I figured in five years it’d be a big corporate mess, so I decided it was time for me to get out of Bering Sea crab and move on.
The next year (2005), I was crabbing for Dungies in Washington when I received a distressing call from one of my best friends. Owners of the boat he had been on for five years had jacked their lease fee from 45 percent to 70 percent. The fleet had shrunk from 260+ boats to 100. I’d thought that this process would have taken five years, but it had happened immediately. That year, he caught 300,000 pounds of opies in a month and was paid $3,500. The previous year, under the derby system, he’d caught 265,000 pounds of opies in 10 days, pocketing $25,000.
In the following months, I was blown away by how many identical stories I kept hearing. Entire crews were quitting. Others were told, with no warning, that their boat wasn’t fishing anymore. Some of these men had been on the same boat for decades, but now they were working at UPS or Home Depot. I even read an article about it in the Seattle Times titled, “New focus on safety means fewer crabbing jobs” (Oct. 11, 2005).
I stayed away for the next few years, mainly longlining in Alaska and crabbing in Washington, but as odd as it may sound, I missed crabbing out west. Then, in 2009, I heard of a job opening on the F/V Early Dawn. They were the only boat that did brown kings, red kings, and opies in the Bering Sea, they had lower lease rates than most, and they’d just partnered with a Native corporation, enabling them to harvest some of their CDQ.
The numbers seemed promising, so despite my reservations, I took the job.
Within our co-op, we had millions of pounds to catch, but we were essentially still in a derby. We had to catch all of our brown crab before the red crab season, and then we were competing with the other vessels in our co-op — first-come, first-served for quota.
After eight months of crabbing and two months of shipyard, I’d grossed the same as I had the year before longlinging and crabbing for Dungies, but with more than twice as many days at sea and astronomically higher expenses.
Needless to say, at the end of the season I packed my sea bag. One of the Early Dawn owners longlines and crabs down in Washington with another boat, and I was able to make an easy transition back down south.
Despite all of the negatives for deckhands, the fleet is still consolidating. According to NOAA’s five-year review, 75 percent of the quota is now in one cooperative.
There are now fewer than 20 cooperative quota holders holding 98 percent of the quota in all Bering Sea crab fisheries, except western Aleutian brown king crab. Within these cooperatives, the main form of competition is lease fees — which boat will fish for the least amount of money. They are still competing with the other boats, and as time passes, quota is shifted to the boats that are catching more. It sounds like a derby to me.
Dutch Harbor is a ghost town compared to what it was five years ago. When you drop 70 percent or 80 percent of jobs, there’s a lot of desperation within the crab crew workforce.
Another friend of mine just took home only $18,000 from a $1.5 million gross at full share for red crab. By comparison, my buddy (Steve Feenstra) paid his 16-year-old son a half-share seining this summer, and the teenager made more than twice that.
Most men pick a trade and stick with it. As evidence, there are guys who were in the wheelhouse five years ago and now on deck trying to keep up with the pups. (You can watch this on TV right now.) They’ll take what they can get.
As far as safety goes, by my count we’ve had three deaths in the last three years: Jeffrey Ness of the North American , Keith “Moose” Criner of the Seabrooke , and Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie.
It’s just as dangerous as it’s ever been if you consider the ratio of deaths to the reduced number of crewmen.
In Jim Stone’s article, there was a photo caption describing “enthusiastic crewmen.” I worked with one of them, and he wasn’t very enthusiastic about his pay. He said all the deckhands quit.
There’s currently no loan system in place for deckhands to purchase quota. And although Jim has some great ideas for selling quota to his crew, he hasn’t gotten around to it in the last five years.
Maybe it’s because they’re too broke.