November 2005 | Issue No. 10
News from U.S. Coast Guard 17th District Office of Public Affairs

New Style of Crab Fishery on the Horizon; U.S. Coast Guard Warns Fishermen Against Overloading

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - "Hook it!" a crewman leans over the side of the vessel, straining to hook the buoy rope that marks their prize. The crab pots have been soaking for 13 hours. He brings the rope onboard and slings it into the power winch. The first pot of the string begins to rise - have they found the crab? Metal breaks the surface. Red king crab teem inside. The pot swings over the deck and opens; the crab spills out onto the processing table. Each crab is like a 20 dollar bill with legs.

Kodiak, Alaska - Chief Petty Officer Dave Simmerman and Petty Officer Third Class Sarah Vega from Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak visually inspect a life ring and emergency marker light on the fishing vessel Provider during a dockside exam. The exam is intended to help the Provider prepare for the upcoming Red King crab fishery. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Kip Wadlow)

Crab fishing has traditionally been labeled one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The U.S. Coast Guard, in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, is currently working to make the fisheries safer.

Hands-on safety training paired with safety compliance inspections has greatly reduced the number of accidents and deaths in the profession over the last decade. Since 1999 there has been a 65-70 percent decline in fatalities resulting from vessel loss in the crab fisheries. Excluding the 2005 sinking of the Big Valley, the biggest killer in the industry is falls overboard.

In line with those initial efforts, federal, state and local agencies have adopted the Crab Rationalization plan for the 2005/2006 winter season. The plan dictates that the crab fisheries in Bristol Bay, Kodiak and the Bering Sea will no longer be derby style fisheries.

The derby style fishery forced fishermen to a heightened level of competition by determining an overall quota of crab to be caught for the season. The fishery would last a week to 10 days until the quota was met. The desire to catch as much crab as possible, equaling as much money as possible, drove crews beyond their limits, causing them to make poor judgment calls where safety was concerned.

Kodiak, Alaska - Max Mutch peers out of a life raft during a survival training evolution at the Kodiak U.S. Coast Guard base pool. Mutch attended the training with his father; both are local fishermen. The training, hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association, included stability models, donning a survival suit, survival practices in the water, use of a life raft and a U.S. Coast Guard hoist basket. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Sara Francis)

The rationalization plan eliminates the overall quota and assigns individual fishing quotas to boats based on participation and catch history. For some vessels that previously had participated, operating costs have made the fishery uneconomical. Most of these vessels have chosen to join co-ops and allow the crews of larger vessels with more pots to fish their quota at a percentage of the profit.

Pot limits are established by ADF&G and are not related to vessel stability. They are purely limits on the number of pots to be fished. For instance: last year the limit was 200 pots per vessel, so even if a vessel could carry 300, they could only fish 200. If a vessel could only carry 120 pots, and they wanted to fish 200, it had to make an extra trip and use wet storage areas. This year the pot limit has been set at 400 pots per vessel, which has U.S. Coast Guard officials concerned about crews overloading their vessels.

To help crews prevent overloading, every vessel has a stability letter dictating the number of pots and supplies they can carry at any one time. The letter is also based on the size and weight of the pots. Many of the stability letters U.S. Coast Guard officials have seen in recent years dictate a vessel can carry x number of pots, but the letter lists those pots at 600 pounds rather than the 1,000 pound pots officials find onboard. Changing the weight of the pots radically changes the physics and stability of the vessel.

Kodiak, Alaska - The crew of the 103-foot fishing vessel Determined has stacked crab pots onboard in preparation for the 2005 Bristol Bay king crab opener. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chris McLaughlin)

It is vital that the crews of crab vessels abide by their stability letter. If pot weight has changed, they should obtain a new letter that takes the weight balance into account. If the dimensions of the pot have changes causing stacks of pots to be higher than previously listed in the approved stability letter, official changes to the letter should also be made.

The loss of the fishing vessel Big Valley during the 2005 Bering Sea Opilio Crab season has vividly demonstrated the importance of vessel stability. While the official investigation into the incident is not complete, it is clear, based upon the information collected by U.S. Coast Guard investigators, that the Big Valley was not only overloaded, but the average pot weight as listed in the vessel's stability letter did not match the weight of the pots that were loaded on the vessel. Specifically, while the pot weight as recorded in the Big Valley's stability letter was 600 pounds (including line and buoys), the average weight of the pots onboard was determined to be 780 pounds. This 30 percent difference is dramatic and alone could have significant effects upon vessel stability.

Kodiak, Alaska - Fishermen repair and rig crab pots for loading at the Western Pioneer dock in Kodiak Thursday. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Chris McLaughlin)

Crab vessels that will be participating in the 2005 Bristol Bay red king crab fishery must have properly loaded pots and stability letters with accurate pot weights. U.S. Coast Guard officials will be examining crab vessels prior to their departure from Unalaska, Akutan, King Cove, and Kodiak this fall.

The U.S. Coast Guard is advising vessel owners and operators to ensure that their vessels' stability letters are current and accurately reflect current loading practices. Vessel operators should confirm that pot weights, amount of bait allowed, tank management (fuel burning practices), and number of tiers are accurate and strictly adhered to. Vessel captains are expected to notify the U.S. Coast Guard of their departure intentions 24 hours prior to leaving port.

During the months of October and November, U.S. Coast Guard officials will be in Dutch Harbor, Akutan, King Cove and Kodiak to conduct safety training, fishing vessel safety exams, and safety compliance inspections at the dock. As dates are set for these activities, more information will be made available.