Federal Shutdown Keeps Many Crab Fishermen In Port

Today was the official opening of Alaska’s king crab season. About a half a dozen boats catching community development quota, issued by the state, got to head out and start fishing.

But as KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal reports, hundreds of other fishermen were stuck in port, waiting for the federal government to reopen and issue their crab permits.

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Instead of plying the Bering Sea, Chris Simpson spent the day up to his elbows in hot soapy water.

Simpson: “Just scrubbing bait jars. That’s it. Keeping them clean. You’ve got to keep them clean before you start the season.”

Simpson’s a crew member on the Handler, based out of Kodiak. They’re one of at least 70 boats that can’t legally fish until the National Marine Fisheries Service reopens and divides up this year’s king crab limit into individual permits.

Simpson says he’s managed to find the bright side in that.

Simpson: “It was a lot easier this year. Instead of coming in and slamming everything on in 24 hours, it was, ‘Do a few today, do a few tomorrow.’ Now we’re running out of stuff to do though.” 

He takes me down to the galley to meet the rest of the crew. They’re eating lunch and watching a movie. Captain Joshua Songstad says it’s been tough to really relax, though.

Songstad: “We tend to be people that take control of our own lives and our own situations. For the government to tell us that we can’t go fishing based on some paperwork is very frustrating.”

Songstad says he’s fished his whole life, and many of his crew members have too.

Songstad: “We’ve been held up for strikes, we’ve been held up for price negotiations. I can’t recall ever being held up for permits.” 

The fleet is under a serious time crunch. Every year, they catch as much king crab as they can before November 20. That’s when the crab has to be loaded up and shipped off to Japan for New Year’s.

Songstad: “If our crab cannot make it there for the New Year, our demand drops dramatically and our price will drop.”

That means less profit. Songstad estimates the fleet can wait about two more weeks before they run the risk of missing Japan’s deadline.

To speed things up, the industry’s has been lobbying for help. A captain from one of the “Deadliest Catch” boats, flew to Washington D.C. to testify before Congress about the closure. They got Alaska’s lawmakers to come up with their own financial plan for issuing permits.

Songstad says there haven’t been any signs of progress.

Songstad: “There’s so many different groups complaining about their needs. I think we’re kind of being lumped into that category. Everybody’s needing and wanting right now.”

No one on the Handler – or any other boat that’s stuck in port – is going to get paid until they start catching crab.

The six crew members have 17 kids among them. Daniel White says they were able to plan ahead, so their families wouldn’t be hit too hard.

White: “We’ve done this forever and we know we only get two big checks a year. So we’re usually pretty prepared for the small things. But if this thing stays shut down for a while, it could screw a lot of people.”

White says he has a backup plan if the shutdown goes on too much longer.

DW: “I said, I’m gonna need an EBT [electronic benefit transfer] card here soon.”

LR: “Welfare, essentially?”

DW: “Yeah. I’m gonna sign up here in Dutch.”

The crew of the Handler laughs, and all agree – that’s probably not what Congress had in mind when the government shut down in the first place.