In mid-October, the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that it would be canceling the winter snow crab season. This is the first time snow crab season has been canceled in the Bering Sea. The state agency says the closure follows dwindling shellfish numbers.
Chuck Jackson is based in Newport and is the Chief Engineer and Senior Seaman of F/V Atlantico. He joins us in sharing what this closure means for some commercial fishers in Oregon.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
David Miller: It’s Think Out Loud. I am Dave Miller. These are dark days for crabbers in Alaska. A few weeks ago, officials in Alaska canceled the fall harvest of Bristol Bay red king crab for the second year in a row and, for the first time, they canceled the winter harvest of snow crab. This is after a recent report revealed that their population had dropped by 90% in just two years. Chuck Jackson, who grew up in Oregon, is the chief engineer and senior seaman of the fishing vessel Atlantico. He joins us in talking about what these closures will mean. Chuck Jackson, thank you for giving us the time.
Chuck Jackson: Hello how are you?
Miller: How are you. Thanks for join us. I want to start briefly with a bit of your history before I get to the closing. You grew up in Depoe Bay on the central Oregon coast. What was your first job in the fishing industry?
Jackson: My first job in the fishing industry was probably when I was hired by the harbor master of Depoe Bay to pick up trash in the bay with my little rowboat when I was about eight years old.
Jackson: When I was 10, I started working seasonally during the summers on commercial salmon trolling boats in Depoe Bay, which used to be a commercial fishing village. So I started around the age of 10 working on trolling lines. When I was 17 I went to Kodiak, Alaska for the first time and was employed by my uncle who was a crabber captain and I worked for him for about three months and then he took a job on another ship and I stayed on that ship, and my career went from there. It was in 1987, I was 17 years old.
Miller: So there was no way you weren’t going into this industry, basically starting at the age of eight?
Jackson: Being from the Oregon coast, you grow up with two choices: either you go to sea or you go to the woods. Then you become either a lumberjack or a fisherman. All the men before me went to work in Alaska. I saw this as a very appealing lifestyle because I was literally born by the ocean. I grew up close to the ocean. I grew up very intimate with the ocean and developed a fondness for boats from an early age.
Miller: What did Alaska mean to you as a boy growing up in Oregon?
Miller: (laugh) It’s a word. Can you give us an idea of how much money you could make in say one crabbing season in Alaska versus Dungeness off the Oregon coast?
Jackson: Let’s put it this way, my cousin is also a fisherman and he’s a boat captain and he works about 11 months a year and I work about 10 months a year and I’m a sailor and I make more more money than in Alaska and he is a boat captain in Newport, Oregon. I probably make twice as much as I could working full time in Oregon as a fisherman. I fished Dungeness and trolled salmon as an adult in Newport, Charleston and Reesport etc.
Miller: So your name is deckhand, but I’m assuming you’re officially chief engineer and senior deckhand, so that’s your official title for this fishing vessel. What does it mean to be an engineer on a boat?
Jackson: I use and maintain all equipment. These large fishing boats basically look like floating tractors. They have complicated equipment systems. I have four big engines, main propulsion, steering, electrics and plumbing. I work with 208 (V) three-phase electrical equipment. It’s a lot of knowledge that I started to learn at a very young age. I was kind of taken under wing by the chief engineer of the first boat I worked on and decided early on that I wanted to do this. I was a bit mechanically inclined and it’s kind of a way to move up the ranks and earn more respect and responsibility and you also get paid a bit more.
Miller: Where were you just a few weeks ago when you heard about the snow crab fishery closing for the year?
jackson: We were actually returning from the Bering Sea to Kodiak Island. We were just participating in a Pacific gray cod fishery, which is another trap fishery that we were also participating in. We also have licenses for this fishery.
Miller: What went through your head?
jackson: Oh shit. Well, the king crab fishery was no surprise to us – it had been closed last year. We knew it was going to be closed again. The likelihood of this opening opening soon is low to nil. Personally, I would probably never rely on Bristol Bay king crab fishing again in my career. Opilio is the real name for snow crab which is just a market name. We therefore know them as the Opilio tanner crab or we abbreviate them and call them Opies. They are smaller crabs and they are biomass. So there are more. When you fish king crab really well, you catch 100 crabs per trap. When we do Opie fishing really well, we catch 500-600 per trap. So to sum it up, I’ve been making about half of my income from Opilio Crab for the past few years. So obviously my biggest concern is that there’s a large chunk of my income that’s probably going away for the unpredictable future. Usually when they close peaches like that, they don’t just close them for a year or two. They are slow growing animals – I think an Opie Crab takes about seven years to be marketable. You have to assume that it could take a decade to rebuild these stocks if environmental conditions allow them to recover.
Miller: And even that last one is a big “if”. For example, if one of the reasons for this decline is a warming ocean. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said in a statement announcing the closure, “Understand that crabbing closures have substantial impacts on the industry and fishing communities. ADF&G must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks. In other words, we know it’s going to be tough for you, but we have to do it if we want there to be crab in the future. What impact do you think this shutdown will have on the industry as a whole?
Jackson: It’s a good question. The fishing industry in general is very resilient. They are very smart people who are very creative and there are other options that we will have to rely on more. Overall, the fishing industry is going nowhere. It’s just going to hurt a lot of people. There’s a lot of people involved, there’s also a lot of money involved. To become an Opilio crab fisherman, you can’t just buy a boat and go catch them. There are millions of dollars worth of rights that you need to own to be able to do that. And most of these rights are actually purchased with loans. So a lot of these quota holders (permit holders) are making payments on something that they can’t profit from. So there will be a lot of impact.
There are small towns, there are several towns in the Bering Sea in the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands that are purely fishing villages. They are therefore villages supported 100% by fishermen. So basically all the money they make comes from the fishing industry, and our crab is a huge part of it. I don’t know what that actual number is, but it will affect a lot of small communities and processing plants. I’m in a pretty good position here through this, I’ll survive this, but there are a lot of anglers who will probably retire from the industry. There are many boat owners selling their boats. So I don’t know, it will be really interesting to see what happens.
Miller: You noted that fishermen are resilient and resourceful and that there are other options. What can these boats be used for? I mean do they need to be retrofitted for other fisheries or could they come out like they are now for other creatures?
Jackson: The crab industry in particular, we mostly just trap fish. It is a type of gear. So we use crab pots. There are other things we can catch with crab pots, like Pacific gray cod. Basically, anything swimming or crawling in a pot that we can catch is just a matter of whether there are seasons and how long they last and how much money you can make from them. You can transfer boats to other industries, but this is a major build. It costs a lot of money, as I said, for permits and equipment. It is unlikely that this will actually happen. I don’t really know what many of these boats will do. I know this boat whose replacement value is probably close to 10 million dollars. I know it went on the market for $1.5 million about a week ago.
Miller: Wow. Briefly, you said you would be in better shape than some people. What is your plan for the next two years now?
Jackson: Our immediate plan is to rely more on Pacific gray cod. So basically all we really have to fish is multiple cod fisheries across the state of Alaska and we will aggressively participate in all of those as much as we can.
Miller: Chuck Jackson, thank you for your time today. I appreciate it. Good luck to you.
Jackson: Thanks a lot.
Miller: It’s Chuck Jackson. Chief Engineer and Senior Deckhand for the F/V Atlantico. He is originally from Depoe Bay. He has been a crabber and fisherman in Alaska for decades.
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