The Northwest crab harvest can be lucrative — but it also bears the highest death rate of any Pacific crab fishery. And the crabbers are divided over efforts to increase safety.

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They head out to sea in pursuit of a crab’s sweet meat. Months of sleep-deprived labor can pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars for a top-grossing vessel. Their death toll — 17 lives lost in the past seven years — makes this the most lethal Pacific harvest.

These are not the Bering Sea crabbers who gained fame on the Discovery Channel’s reality series, “Deadliest Catch,” but the Dungeness-crab crews who toil in anonymity off the Washington and Oregon coasts. Since 2000, their death rate has been 50 percent higher than that of Bering Sea crabbers and four times the rate of all U.S. fishermen, federal statistics show. “We’re the deadliest catch,” says Mike Banks, the Oregon skipper of the 38-foot Alexa B, which on Saturday joined several hundred crabbers for the opening of the new Dungeness season off Oregon and part of Washington. “We’re fishing in the Pacific Ocean, where the storms blow 3,000 miles in from Japan.”

These Northwest crabbers take pride in a fishery that still has room for the little guy, who can break into the harvest with far less capital than required to fish the Bering Sea. Most Northwest crab boats range in length from 30 to 80 feet, far smaller than most Bering Sea crab boats, which can reach more than 180 feet.

Both fleets face severe weather this time of year, when the crabs are at their prime. Bering Sea squalls can coat gear and decks with freezing spray, making boats dangerously top-heavy. That’s rare on Northwest waters, but the local fleet still gets rocked by storms. Saturday’s opening came as forecasters warned of a monster storm capable of spinning out 40-foot seas and hurricane-force winds. Most boats were expected to stay in port.

The Northwest fleet also must navigate treacherous river sandbars to enter and exit ports. Last year, Oregon bars claimed seven commercial crabbers — three in February when the Catherine M capsized trying to cross the Tillamook Bar with a load of Dungeness crab. Then on Dec. 16, the vessel Ash capsized off the mouth of the Rogue River. Four died.

“He was trying to get some income for the holidays and had just crossed the bar,” said Cecil Ashdown, widow of 44-year-old skipper, Rob Ashdown. “Then the sneaker waves hit. The first one, they were able to ride out, and the second one flipped them over.”

17 deaths in seven years

In the seven-year stretch ending last year, the Dungeness fleet suffered five capsizings that claimed 14 crew members, while three others died in separate incidents. Thirteen deaths happened in Oregon waters, four off the Washington coast.

Northwest crabbers say the fatalities reflect the intense competition, as small and large boats battle to grab as much crab as fast as possible. The danger grows with fatigue, or alcohol and drug abuse. This past January, a young Oregon skipper tested positive for methamphetamine after a disastrous bar crossing that killed one of his crew.

There are also newcomers, with the biggest churn in the larger Oregon fleet, with some 450 permits.

“You get greenhorns who buy boats and get to thinking they are going to make the big bucks,” said Gary Wintersteen, a 30-year veteran who crabs off Oregon. “Inexperience kills.”

Coast Guard officials say the Northwest fleet includes some poorly maintained vessels, and skippers who scrimp on required emergency drills. They are troubled by the fatalities. “We’re looking at a pretty major problem and I don’t think we have come to grips with it as an agency,” said Cmdr. Chris Woodley, of the Coast Guard’s district office in Seattle.

Seasonal safety checks

To try to shrink the death toll, the Coast Guard now conducts dockside safety checks before the season starts. For four days last week, 38 inspectors fanned out to check the fleet. Inspections are not mandatory — 13 skippers refused to let the Coast Guard board. Some 200 agreed.

Inspectors checked life rafts, emergency locator beacons and survival suits.

“It’s pretty cool having you guys out here doing this,” said Bob Shaw, a 51-year-old skipper from Arch Cape, Ore. Shaw is a veteran of Alaska and Northwest fisheries who recalls two mishaps from his early career that required Coast Guard rescues. He veered off to pursue technology but recently bought the 56-foot Double Eagle and rejoined the crab harvest.

As a Coast Guard inspector waxed the zipper of a survival suit, Chris Burton, a member of Shaw’s crew, decided to try one on. A stout man, Burton struggled unsuccessfully to pull on the bulky suit. He tried a second, larger one. It fit — crucial knowledge should he ever have to abandon ship.

After four days, the Coast Guard’s list of deficiencies included six vessels with bad survival suits, 11 with expired batteries on emergency locator beacons and at least a half-dozen boats with improperly installed life rafts.

These dockside checks were inspired by a program that began in Alaska in 1999. Those checks have more bite because the crab vessels are required to have stability instructions — developed by a naval architect — that specify a maximum number of pots. The checks were supplemented by vessel inspections that the state of Alaska now requires for participation in the Bering Sea harvests.

Fatalities among Alaska’s crabbers have shrunk dramatically. Between 2000 and 2006, 11 crabbers died — compared to more than 45 during the previous seven years. Coast Guard officials note that the downturn began long before 2005, when a new harvest system ended the race for the crab by giving vessels predetermined shares of the catch.

“The biggest single preventive thing we did was start enforcing the stability rules,” said Woodley, who helped pioneer the program.

But it’s difficult for the Coast Guard to determine the stability of the Northwest fleet. Most of the crab boats are less than 79 feet and thus exempt from having to hire a naval architect to develop stability instructions that guide the loading of pots.

The Coast Guard is considering a rule that would require all vessels 50 feet or longer to have such stability guidelines if they are new or undergo major renovation.

“The whole crux of the issue is to know how much is too much,” said Michael Rosecrans, the Coast Guard chief of fishing-vessel safety. “They [crabbers] think they understand that, but they don’t always understand.”

Concern over restrictions

The Coast Guard is considering other proposals, as well, including one to beef up restrictions when boats attempt to cross the river bars.

All this safety talk makes some crabbers uneasy. They worry about more bureaucracy and rules that they fear will force out more small operators.

“I don’t want any more Coast Guard involvement, no way,” said Banks, the Oregon skipper.

Banks on Friday carefully planned his strategy for the season opening, with the approaching storm putting fishermen and Coast Guard teams on edge.

A few hours before midnight, he guided his boat over a turbulent Columbia River bar, a run complicated by navigation rules that required him to turn off his deck lights so as not to hamper the vision of oncoming river pilots.

Out at sea, the crabbing was hot. Banks and his three crew pulled in some 15,000 pounds of Dungeness to fill their hold in about eight hours. Then, as the winds picked up, and waves occasionally began to wash across the stern deck, they scurried back to port.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com