WASHINGTON, D.C. — Theirs is one of the deadliest occupations, with 800-pound crab pots menacing life and limb, and stormy waters threatening their ships.
But the men and women who ply the Bering Sea pursuing the lucrative catch are facing a different challenge: The three-month Alaska crab season starts Tuesday, but government workers, idled by the federal shutdown, aren’t issuing the necessary permits.
The shutdown has forced furloughs of fisheries managers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Juneau. Without them, some 80 boats that fish for Bristol Bay red king crab, Bering Sea snow crab and other species can’t get the paperwork to catch their quotas.
About 50 of the vessels are based in Seattle and 10 others are from Oregon. Most of the boats are gearing up in the Aleutian Islands or are en route.
The biggest financial threat from a lengthy delay is missing the New Year’s holiday season in Japan, where half of Alaska king crab is sold. That could depress prices by 20 percent or more in Japan and drag down domestic crab prices as well, said Jake Jacobsen, director of Seattle-based Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a group of Bering Sea crab fishermen.
King crabs are expected to fetch around $16 a pound wholesale this year. They can sell for $40 a pound retail. With the total allowable catch for Bristol Bay red king crab set at 8.6 million pounds for the 2013-14 season, every dollar drop in price would result in millions of dollars of lost revenue.
The total quota for smaller and cheaper Bering Sea snow crab is nearly 54 million pounds; for Bering Sea Tanner crab, it’s 3.1 million pounds.
The economic stakes — more than $200 million to the harvesters alone — prompted U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, to take to the House floor last Saturday to urge Republicans to end the government shutdown.
“We are facing a ‘fishing cliff’ in the Bering Sea unless Congress acts,” she warned.
On Friday, the Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing into how the shutdown is affecting thenation’s economic security. Among those invited to testify is Keith Colburn, captain of the Alaska crab-fishing vessel Wizard and one of the stars of television’s “Deadliest Catch.”
It’s unclear if production of the Discovery Channel show will be affected by the shutdown.
The retail value of the 2011 Alaska crab haul was $400 million, according to a July 2013 report prepared for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
Crab accounts for less than 10 percent of Alaska’s $4.6 billion commercial-fishing industry, which is dominated by salmon, Alaska pollock, Pacific cod and other species.
Washington state, home to fishing fleets and major seafood processors, is the biggest beneficiary of Alaska’s seafood industry. In all, according to the report, the industry generated 34,000 jobs and $1.9 billion in wages in Washington state.
Jacobsen said pushing back the Oct. 15 crab season opening by a few days wouldn’t cause worry, since the crabbers have until Jan.?15 to catch their individual shares. But if the boats are held back until end of October, the crabs may not reach the Japanese markets in time.
The crabbers can take two weeks to bring in their haul, Jacobsen said, and the catch needs to be frozen, packaged and loaded onto freighters by mid-November at the latest. Last year, the boats delivered virtually all their catch by Nov. 9.
Heading out to sea without permits is not an option. Not only are permits needed to ensure sustainable harvest, Jacobsen said, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement officials are not on furlough.
Lance Farr, a boat owner in Seattle, has a crew of six waiting in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor. Every day the workers are idled will cost Farr about $1,000, for food, fuel, insurance and maintenance. Wages are not a factor because crews are paid a percentage of the catch.
Farr is already resigned to the likelihood that bureaucrats at NOAA won’t be back on the job in time to issue permits for fishing to begin Oct. 15.
He is pinning hopes on a gambit by Alaska’s two senators as well as Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, to get the quotas issued. The lawmakers argued in a letter sent Wednesday to the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, that the agency can apply fisheries fees it already collected to recall furloughed permit handlers.