The brief Alaskan crab season lasts as little as a few days or weeks during the fall and winter. Crab fishing takes place in remote areas of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea, sandwiched between Alaska and Russia. Docked in Dutch Harbor, the largest fishing port in the United States, around 200 crab fishing boats set out, as eager as racehorses bursting out of the gates.
Crab fishing involves dropping 800-pound steel cages, called crab pots, into select areas of the Bering Sea where specific crab species, such as king crab, live. Fishermen cover the traps with herring meat as bait, and the crabs climb up a ramp to get the food, then fall into the bottom of the pot where they can't escape. Fishermen leave these pots in the water for a day or two to allow them to fill up, then haul in their load.
Crab pots and crab pot launchers are common sources of injuries. Fishermen get caught up in the coil lines. Working at the edge of the boat also puts them at risk of being swept off the deck and falling overboard.
A wintertime Bering Sea injects a heavy dose of danger into the job. While salmon fishing season, for example, falls between June and September, crab fishing takes place in spurts between October and January. The icy waters threaten hypothermia and storms grow more frequent during that time of year. The brief season zips by so quickly, the haste of the catch can also contribute to a high fatality rate. And if you get hurt on the boat, no one can drive you to a hospital. To add to the mental strain of an 18- to 20-hour shift, Alaskan winter days may be dark except for a few hours.
With the environmental odds stacked against them, what keeps people coming back to crab fishing, season after season? Many sail the blue waters in search of the green. Business Week magazine named crab fishing the "Worst Job with the Best Pay," with fishermen cashing out as much as $50,000 for a few days work catching king crab and even more for snow crab [source: Miller].
True, when the tide rolls in your favor, crab fishing pays well in return for a hellish week or so, but Alaska officials warn about the unpredictability of crab fishing since it all depends on the size of the harvest. Generally, crew members make 1.5 to 10 percent of the ship's profit. In 2006, 505 commercial Alaskan fishermen pulled in more than $127 million gross worth of crab [source: Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission]. That averages out to more than $250,000 per person, but keep in mind that the payout isn't evenly distributed to all fishermen, since boat owners and captains often claim up to half of a ship's earnings.
While many crab fishermen make a huge chunk of change, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median income for commercial fishermen of only $27,250 per year. Evidently, the pay-off of such risky work may be low for some of the industry's estimated 36,000 employees. What changes have been made to improve the working conditions? Is commercial fishing safer today than it used to be? We'll explore that topic on the next page.