It’s king crab season in the Bering Sea. That means around 300 people, including many from Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle, the home port to the North Pacific Fishing Fleet, fly into Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for the harvest. And when king crab season is over, many of these fishermen and women switch to bairdi crab and snow crab. Which means they’ll be busy for four to five months and there will be a lot more crab on the market.
As the executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a nonprofit trade association that represents the crab industry, Jamie Goen knows a lot about the work that brings crab from the bottom of the sea to our tables. According to Goen, once the crews and captains arrive in Dutch Harbor, they load up the 100-plus foot vessels with 150 to 200 crab traps. They aren’t the usual pots you drop on summer weekends to catch some Dungeness for dinner. These traps are 7 feet wide and 7 feet long and weigh at least 700 pounds. Moving gear around in preparation is no small task.
When the boats are loaded and leave the harbor they motor for somewhere between 14 to 40 hours to reach the ideal spot. Bryce Buholm, the captain of Western Mariner, has been crabbing since he was 17, but his family’s been at it even longer. He says his great-grandfather built the first boat designed specifically for crabbing. Some years, he said, they travel so far that they drop their pots close to the Russian border.
When the pots are baited with herring and cod, they’re dropped and left for 36 to 48 hours. Then they’re hauled up, the crab is dumped and sorted — girls and small boy crabs go right back into the water and the keepers are tossed into holding tanks.
“As we catch crab, it’s all kept alive for as long as possible,” Goen says. “Even as we pull up to the processor at the dock, there is fresh saltwater running through the tanks.”
Once a crew has caught their limit or the boat’s tanks are full, they head back for shore. The fishing vessels go straight to the processors where the water is pumped out of the tanks and the crab are hand-pitched out and weighed.
“They don’t weigh each crab as it comes onto the boat,” Goen says. “Instead they count them and make estimates on the total weight. When they offload the crab and it’s actually weighed, it’s amazing how close their estimates are.”
At the processors, the crabs are butchered and cooked for about 15-18 minutes. Then they’re chilled and vacuum sealed to be shipped out. Goen says about half of the crab stays in the United States and half is shipped to overseas markets.
Buholm has found that many people say they want “fresh” crab. “But what people don’t understand,” he says, “is that 90% of seafood is frozen in Alaska. Almost all the crab is live and then about 20 minutes after it’s unloaded, it’s cooked, processed, frozen and vacuum sealed. That’s as fresh as you can get. The best way to enjoy it is to thaw it out rinse it off and eat it just like that. Some people like it with a little melted butter, but I think the crab meat is so sweet it doesn’t need it.”
Goen says her favorite way to eat crab is to thaw it and then put the legs on a baking sheet and warm them in the oven for just a few minutes. Then she cracks the shells and eats the meat with lemon butter. She puts her leftovers into her homemade mac and cheese.
Buholm is sitting the harvest out this year because the quotas are too small, but he says in a normal year his favorite part of crabbing is getting his crew home safe and seeing his family again. Last year, his brother and best friend were the only two survivors from the Scandies Rose, the crab boat that sank in rough seas off the Alaska Peninsula the night of December 31, 2019. And this winter he’ll be working with the City of Onalaska to create a memorial for lost fisherman much like the one that is at Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal, and to create more safety training for crabbing crews.
Join the Seattle Propeller Club in celebrating our thriving fishing industry. For more than 100 years, Seattle has been the home of the North Pacific Fishing Fleet. For recipes, news and events, visit KingCountyMaritime.com