Commercial King Crab Fishing
For fishermen willing to risk the dangers of the Bering sea, a king crab boat is a home, protector, source of wealth and only refuge for warmth. Just 30 years ago, king crab fishing was one of the richest workplaces in the United States.
Before you decide that you want to risk the waters of the Bering Sea as a career, you should know that commercial fishing is rated as one of the most hazardous occupations in America. The fatality rate is 90 times that of the average US worker. In the earlier days when king crab fishing was conducted like a derby, over 250 boats would register to partake in 3-4 days of king crab fishing. However, because of the reduced stocks available, lower wholesale price of king crab and the danger associated with king crab fishing, the number of boats has declined to around 100.
Of all the king crab that is fished for, the red king crab is the most sought after for commercial use and can be found on sand and silt bottoms of 120 to 600 feet. When fishing for Alaskan king crab, certain legal requirements must be met. The majority of these requirements revolve around crab size and the king crab fishing season. Only the male Alaskan king crab can be kept and quota limits are strictly enforced. Any violator of these laws will receive hefty fines in the hundreds of thousands. Check out Alaska Commercial Fisheries for entry information.
If you are serious about becoming a king crab fishermen, you should start with a physical exam. Your physical safety will be at risk with cold temperatures, high seas and bulky equipment. You will also go through a mandatory crab boat course which offers training of how to work on a crab boat. Crew members are responsible for their own commercial fishing licenses – typically $60 for an Alaskan resident and all gear that they will need to perform their job.
The impact of cheaper red Russian king crab being imported to the United States has begun to lower wholesale prices of Alaskan king crab. Not only have crab fishermen been affected by higher fuel prices, but they are getting less for their catch. What is also unfortunate is that much of the Russian king crab is being caught and exported illegally. Arkadi Gontmakher, CEO of one of the largest importers of Russian king crab, Global Fishing of Bellevue WA, was arrested last year for exporting poached Russian crab to the US.
Additionally, one of the bigger stars of the show “The Deadliest Catch”, Captain Sig Hansen, cut a multi-million dollar deal with Global Fishing to use an image of his boat the Northwestern and signature “Capt. Sig” with the marketing of king crab coming from Russia and not Alaska. As pointed out by other Deadliest Catch skippers, most consumers are going to associate Sig Hansen with selling a product from Alaska not Russia and not going to read the fine print on the back which states that the crab is Russian king crab. In response to this criticism, Captain Sig states that he is using fame from the tv show to increase the global demand for king crab.
Deadliest Catch Boat Links ("F/V" stands for "Fishing Vessel"):
- F/V Cornelia Marie
- F/V Farwest Leader
- F/V Northwestern
- F/V Time Bandit
- F/V Crab Wizard (Image of Crab Wizard is under Fishing Vessels)
- F/V Maverick
For king crab fishing, vessels typically range from 50 to 300 feet in length. They are equipped with massive hydraulic systems for administering 700 pound crab pots.
How much do Alaskan king crab fishermen make?
In the early 80s during the king crab fishing boom, boat owners were making $1 to $2 Million a season and deckhands were taking home $60 to $70 thousand each. However, those days have disappeared. Today, the structure has remained similar, just the amount of dollars has changed. You can read more about commercial values at the ADFG website.
Deckhands get a percentage of the gross after the boat owner’s take is subtracted which averages around 8% to 10%. Greenhorns receive a daily fixed amount based on their time on the boat. Newcomer deck hands (i.e. new boat) usually earn 5% of the adjusted gross catch.
Calculation and Assumptions:
Season quota: 15.5 Million pounds of king crab
Number of boats: 125
Average Pounds per Boat quota: 124,000 pounds
Wholesale price per pound of king crab: $7
Average revenue per boat: $868,000
Boat owner (50% of gross):
$434,000 to apply toward expenses and income
Deck hand (10% of adjusted gross of $434,000):
Greenhorn: $150 day
How long at sea?
Up until 10 years ago, when king crab fishing was conducted like a derby, crab fishermen would be at sea for 3-4 days. Now, with an extended catch period in order to prevent derby style fishing, king crab fishermen are typically at sea for 3-4 weeks at a time before coming back to shore.
Dangers of crab fishing
The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked commercial fishing as the occupation with the highest fatality rate of 142 per 100,000 individuals. Alaskan king crab fishing is over double that amount with over 300 fatalities per 100,000 individuals. The major causes for death are hypothermia and drowing. Ice buildup poses many dangers and crew members typically spend many hours each day using baseball bats to chip ice off boats. Many times fishermen can also be severely injured or killed by the heavy equipment used to catch Alaskan king crab so proper safety measures must be taken at all times.
Large wave in the Bering sea:
Cold temperatures that cause hypothermia:
The State of Alaska has instituted minimum size and sex restrictions, vessels registration, seasons, observer requirements, and gear restrictions. Fisheries are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has developed a Crab Rationalization Program to address the needs of Alaskan crab fisheries. The program is intended to address the conservation issues associated with the over fishing caused by derby fishery, reduce bycatch and associated discard mortality, and increase the safety of crab fishermen by ending the race for fish.
How and Where To Fish for Alaskan King Crab
When fishing for the Alaskan king crab, most fishermen will use what is called a pot. The pot is actually a box shaped trap made from a steel frame and covered with a wire mesh. These pots can weigh anywhere from six hundred to eight hundred pounds each. Depending on the size of the fishing boat they will have between one hundred fifty to three hundred pots per boat. Sand and soft sediments are less likely to be affected by large king crab pots than other habitat types. Also, pots are considered to be less damaging than mobile gear because they remain in one location and don’t impact a large area of the seafloor. King crab fisherman like to go close to the ice edges because king crab prefer freezing water temperatures. Each year, crab boats are given an individual quota based on prior years catches and the estimated biomass.
The bait is placed inside the pot and lowered to the bottom of the water. Normally, the fishermen will use codfish or herring as the bait. These pots are usually placed in a line to make it easier to pull them back up. After a couple of days the pots will be brought back up to the surface and sorted through. Any of the Alaskan king crab that do not meet the requirements will be put back in the water. The rest that are kept will be stored in a live holding tank until the boat returns to shore.
Commercial fishing boats all have Hydraulic systems that are designed to lift up the pots holding the Alaskan king crab. These systems are designed to hold up to and withstand the freezing cold weather that is typical for Alaska. As a general rule, the Red and the Blue Alaskan king crab are caught somewhere between 600 feet deep and the intertidal zone. This is the part of the ocean that is underwater during the high tide and uncovered and exposed during low tide. The Golden Alaskan King Crab is located between 600 to 1,600 feet deep. The fishermen mark the depth of each pot with a buoy for identification.
Links to Alaskan King Crab Fishing Jobs:
- Alaska Governement website: Seafood Jobs in Alaska
- JobMonkey.com - Alaska Crabbing Jobs
- Trident Seafoods
- Alaskan Leader Fisheries Jobs
- State of Alaska Fishing Jobs
Alaskan King Crab Fishing Books: