Thursday, October 27, 2005
“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. It begins to rise to the surface. The first pot of the string – 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.
Crab fishing is labeled as one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The 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 are working to make the fisheries safer. Hands on safety training teamed with safety compliance inspections has greatly reduced the number of accidents and deaths over the last decade. Since 1999 there has been a 65-70 percent decline in fatalities due to vessel loss in the crab fisheries. Excluding the 2005 sinking of the Big Valley, the biggest killer is man overboard. In line with those efforts federal, state and local agencies and groups 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 a derby style fishery. "The Crab Rationalization Plan is the most complex fisheries management tool we've used yet," said Chief Petty Officer Zane Reser, a Coast Guard investigator and fishing vessel examiner from Marine Safety Office Anchorage. The derby style fishery forced fishermen to a heightened level of competition by hosting an over-all quota of crab to be caught as fast as possible. The fishery would last a week to 10 days until the quota met. The desire to catch as much crab as possible, equaling as much money as possible, drove crews beyond their limits and drew them to make poor judgment calls where safety was concerned to maximize their haul. The rationalization plan eliminated the overall quota and dealt out individual fishing quotas to boats based on participation and catch history. Vessel operating costs have made the fishery uneconomical for some vessels that previously fished. They’ll spend more money going fishing than the catch will bring in. Most of these vessels have chosen to join co-ops and allow the crews of larger vessels that can carry and use more pots to fish their quota at a percentage of the profit. Pot limits are established by ADF&G and they have nothing to do with stability. They are limits on the number of pots to be fished. For instance last year the limit was 200 so 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 they had to make an extra trip and use wet storage areas. This year the pot limit has been set at 400 pots per vessel. Coast Guard officials are concerned about crews overloading their vessels. Every vessel has a stability letter and stability book 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 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 800 - 1,000 pound pots officials find onboard. Changing the weight of the pots radically changes the physics and stability of the vessel. It is vital that the crews of crab vessels abide by their stability letter and 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 to the incident is not complete, it is clear based upon the information collected by Coast Guard investigators following the sinking 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 (12 pots allegedly fished by the Sea Warrior and six pots left on the beach in Unalaska) was determined to be 780 pounds. This 30 percent difference is dramatic and alone could have significant effects upon vessel stability. Crab vessels that will participating in the 2005 Bristol Bay red king crab fishery must have properly loaded pots and have stability letters with accurate pot weights. Coast Guard officials will be examining crab vessels prior to their departure from Unalaska, Akutan, King Cove, and Kodiak this fall. The Coast Guard is advising vessel owners and operators to ensure that their vessel’s 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 Coast Guard of their departure intentions 24 hours prior to leaving port to fish. During October and November, Coast Guard personnel 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.