SEATTLE >> The nation’s king-crab fishing fleet, prepared to deploy off the coast of southwestern Alaska for the start of a season that supplies holiday tables and restaurants around the world, was instead stalled in port Tuesday by the federal government shutdown.
Crews and captains, who in ordinary times would have been dropping their crab pots at precisely noon in Bristol Bay, 4,000 miles from the nation’s capital, were cooling their heels in places like Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, waiting, watching the news and hoping for a break.
The federal workers needed to process the permits for each boat’s catch quota were on furlough. Equally frustrating, said Tom Suryan, a crabber with 35 years of experience, was that the weather was lovely. The violent seas that crab crews can commonly confront in the fall, and that television audiences have become familiar with in shows like "Deadliest Catch," were nowhere in sight.
"We’re all dressed up with no place to go," Suryan, 58, the captain of the Bristol Mariner, said in a telephone interview.
The livelihoods of around 500 or so crew members and captains on more than 80 crab vessels are at stake, not to mention the impact on wholesalers, fishmongers and others down the food chain.
The Port of Seattle, in a 2009 report, said that each Seattle-based crab boat generated about $500,000 of economic activity a year.
But in the crabbers’ case there is also a ticking clock, with profit margins hinged on a mid-November deadline to supply the Japanese market, where the finest red king crabs are a traditional high-end holiday gift.
"The Japanese pay a premium for the holiday market," said Mark Gleason, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a Seattle-based group. "By the second week in November, we miss that window."
If the freighters heading for Japan cannot be supplied in time, crews, captains and owners all stand to take a 20 percent to 25 percent pay cut, Gleason said, as crabs not sold in Japan are left to flood the market elsewhere and drive down the price.
"It will be like trying to buy a turkey after Thanksgiving," said Jake Jacobsen, the executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a nonprofit fishermen’s group. "They’re pretty cheap."
Rep. Don Young, a 21-term Republican from Alaska, has been among a group of legislators trying to free up personnel to get the paperwork processed. Last week, Young, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, also Republicans, sent a letter to the secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, saying that since crab industry fees pay for federal management of the fishery, federal managers should be on the job, not on furlough.
Young said in a telephone interview that he had tried to follow up, but that Commerce Department phones were mostly going unanswered in the shutdown.
Suryan, the boat captain, said he was not ready to write the season off. He said it would still probably take up to three days for federal workers to process permits once the shutdown ends, and with the 18- to 20-hour trip out to the crabbing grounds, he still hoped to be fishing by this weekend. But of course, fishermen are by inclination optimists.
"Never know until you get fishing," Suryan said, "but I have a feeling fishing will be pretty good."
In the meantime, he said, crew members were close to running out of port-bound maintenance and repair tasks in making the boats ready for the waters they will eventually face.