Crab fishing is no nine-to-five job. The daredevils who work this gig literally live at the office -- a vessel that, as it sloshes through the frigid waters, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the crab quota is filled.
It's no secret crab fishing is risky work, and, in fact, is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. In the 1990s, it was reported that the Alaskan fishing industry typically saw 24 lives lost each year -- on only 34 vessels. That's the equivalent of 140 deaths per 100,000 workers, which was 20 times the national average for all U.S. jobs at that time. Of all the types of fishing done in Alaska, crab fishing was responsible for the majority of deaths [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. New regulations to protect fishermen have improved conditions, and between 2003 and 2008, there were only 11 deaths per year [source: Associated Press].
In these deadly conditions, a crab boat could spend three to four months out at sea. That said, it must carry everything its captain and deckhands need until it returns to port, including 800-pound crab cages, food, medical supplies and other equipment -- and of course room for the incoming crab. Given the treacherous working conditions and close quarters, captains are careful to select deckhands who'll add spunk (not spite) to long days and nights. This is a community, not just a workforce.
Floating city? Well, you might call it that. What is community like aboard a crab boat? How does it function away from land's medical care, food and supplies? Find out on the next few pages.
Crab Boat Equipment and Safety Measures
There are two objectives in crab fishing: Return to port safely and make as much money as possible. As you might guess, these objectives frequently conflict, and crew members wind up in harm's way.
In 1988, a law to increase the safety of the crab fishing crew was enacted. The law's aim was to reduce the two greatest dangers of the icy Alaskan waters: hypothermia and drowning. The best way for a crab fisherman to stay alive is to stay out of the water. Some crab fishing fatalities are preventable. Ships overloaded with equipment or crab are unstable and may capsize. Other accidents are unavoidable. Heavy seas may sweep crew members off the deck, or a deckhand may lose footing while releasing a crab pot. Regardless of the reason for the accident, having the proper equipment on board can be a lifesaver.
The 1988 law requires that all boats carry life rafts, survival suits, a fire extinguisher and alerting and locating equipment. The U.S. Coast Guard has the authority to check for compliance and often performs safety checks. During these checks, the equipment is examined, and the Coast Guard may also observe pot loading procedures to check the training level of the crew.
The locating equipment, or emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), enables the Coast Guard to help a ship that's in trouble. All commercial fishing vessels are required to carry an EPIRB. These battery operated radios transmit a signal that is picked up by satellite. Once activated, they continue to send out a signal for 48 hours. When the captain or boat owner purchases an EPIRB, it is registered. The registration information, including the name, address and phone number of the boat's owner, as well as a description of the boat and a shore side contact phone number are transmitted via satellite to the Coast Guard.
No surprise, the heavy lifting and hazardous toil of crab fishing leads to injuries. Because the ships are far from a hospital, the crew must be relatively self-sufficient when medical care is required.
The fishing vessel contains a medical kit, but this kit is more comprehensive than a traditional first aid kit. It includes some prescription drugs, such as morphine and antibiotics, as well materials to stitch wounds. The captain receives specialized training in the use of the first aid gear when he or she gains a captain's license. The captain can complete training through the American Red Cross's Standard First-Aid Care and Emergency Care Class, its Multimedia Standard First Aid course, or a Coast Guard-approved training class. If the injury requires more extensive medical care, the Coast Guard will evacuate the injured crew member to port. Dutch Harbor facilities are not extensive, and severe injuries may require a flight to Anchorage.
Now that we know how captains and Coast Guard keep fishermen safe on board, let's find out what other supplies the ship carries.
Day-to-day Life on a Fishing Boat
Yes, the day-to-day work aboard a crab ship is harrowing. But for those that choose this job, believe it or not, it can settle into a routine. "It's really only scary the first season or two," Corey Arnold, a crab fisherman and photographer, told HowStuffWorks. "Once you survive 40-foot seas, you start to realize that the boat is bulletproof."
Before the ship leaves port, the crewmen visit the butcher, stock up at Costco and plan their meals. Fresh vegetables are in short supply onboard (which reflects Alaska's produce selection in the fall more than it does the limitations of the ship).
Once the men leave port, the work schedule is erratic. They typically spend a day or so traveling to the area where they intend to set out the crab pots. The next three to 10 days may require 18- to 20-hour shifts. The empty crab pots are baited and dropped into the water and marked with buoys. After all the crab pots are dropped, the crew circles back to start picking them up -- hoping they're full.
While the crab boats have a particular number of crab they're permitted to catch before the end of the season, the ships return to port several times during one trip. The time a boat spends at sea is directly related to its size. Just as the ship can't carry too much equipment without capsizing, it also cannot carry too much crab. During the trip back to port, typically every week-and-a-half to two weeks, the deckhands sleep, watch movies, read and make any necessary repairs to the ship. At port, they resupply the boat with groceries.
Up next, get a taste for community life aboard a crab fishing vessel.
Working on a Crab Boat: High Risk, High Reward
For all the danger associated with crab fishing, you'd think a position would be easy to come by. But it's not. Captains are particular about who they take on board. Once the season opens, the crew spends long hours together. There's no room for complainers who don't pull their own weight.
The money the fishermen earn is based on the number of crab that the fishermen haul in. But that's not all that goes into the work. The crew members also maintain the living quarters of the boat. Whether it's repairing an engine or fixing a dinner, if something needs to be done, any one of the crew must be ready and willing to take the reigns.
Deckhands bring their own gear, an expense that can add up to $300 before they ever earn a penny. While the boat owner provides the safety equipment required by the Coast Guard, deckhands purchase their own wet weather gear, boots and sleeping bag. Some captains also charge the crew a percentage of the fuel, food and other operating expenses. The deckhands purchase their own fishing licenses.
Crab fishing is a lifestyle, not a job. The money is lucrative, but there are certainly easier and safer ways to make a living. The money that you make depends on the quota for your ship. Some ships can stay out for four to five months, and the deckhands may make $80,000. For another vessel that stays out for three-and-a-half months, they'll rake in $40,000 each.
"The money is definitely an incentive, but the personal satisfaction is huge," Corey Arnold, a crab fisherman, told HowStuffWorks. "Crab fishing is not something to grow old in. Crab fishing is an experience, a test of your capabilities. For me, I was interested in pushing myself to the limit; it makes you a stronger person."
To read more about crab fishing and other survival scenarios, click through the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Crab Fishing Quiz
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- Why was Alaskan fishing named the most dangerous job in the world?
- How Rogue Waves Work
- How to Avoid Hypothermia
- The Bering Sea
- 10 Most Dangerous Jobs in America
- How to Survive a Sinking Ship
- What do I do if I fall overboard?
- How to Survive a Shipwreck
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More Great Links
- "Dutch Harbor, Alaska Remains Top Fishing Port." Alaska Report.com. July 17, 2008. (July 18, 2008) http://alaskareport.com/news78/x61463_dutch_harbor.htm
- "EPIRBs: You Bet Your Life." BoatSafe.com. (July 16, 2008)http://boatsafe.com/nauticalknowhow/epirb.htm
- "Commercial Fishing Fatalities in Alaska." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 1997. (July 14, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/97163_58.html
- "Crab Fisheries in Alaska." Alaska Division of Commercial Fisheries. (July 14, 2008)http://www.cf.adfg.state.ak.us/geninfo/shellfsh/crabs/crabhome.php
- "Fishing in Alaska Becoming Less Deadly." Associated Press. March 30, 2008. (July 30, 2008) http://www.theworldlink.com/articles/2008/03/30/news/doc47edec1822797650380827.txt
- Interview with Corey Arnold (www.coreyfishes.com) on July 23, 2008. Corey has worked as a deckhand on crab boats in Alaska for the past six seasons.