So how do you catch a crab? The process is actually pretty simple in theory -- the execution is the tough part. At the season's start, the boats launch from Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, plotting a course for a spot the captain thinks will be fruitful -- based largely on experience, weather conditions and good old-fashioned fisherman's instinct. Once they get to their destination, the deckhands drop crab pots one after another in a line covering dozens of miles, using colored buoys connected to the pot by a rope to mark the drop point.
A large pot is 7 by 8 feet (2.1 by 2.4 meters) and weighs about 800 pounds (362 kilograms) empty, so a manually operated crane is needed to lift and set them onto the flat hydraulic lift. The lift is a flat metal plate that uses hydraulics to hold and lift the heavy pots. A hinge on one side of the lift attaches to the side rail of the boat. Once the deckhands secure the pot onto the lift, they put bait in a bag in the center, typically codfish, and shut the trap door. The lift then tilts up, and the pot slides into the water and sinks to the ocean's floor. Next, a deckhand tosses the length of rope, called the shot, into the sea. That rope is attached to the pot and buoys and later is used to retrieve the trap. A final deckhand throws the buoys out last, and the pot is set. From there it rests, or soaks, for a period of 24 to 48 hours or more, collecting crabs that are hungry for some cod.
After the pots soak, the captain navigates the boat back to the beginning of the string of pots, and the crew begins to haul in the catch. When the buoys are spotted, a deckhand throws a grappling hook attached to a rope to grab the short length of rope that's suspended between the buoys. This rope is also attached to the pot's shot. A deckhand pulls the rope on board and attaches it to a mechanical winch, which hoists the pot up and onto the hydraulic lift. One of the more dangerous parts of this job is managing the heavy, swinging pots. Bad weather tosses them around like cardboard boxes, and it's up to the deckhand to grab and secure the pot onto the lift.
The lift tilts the pot up at an angle and a deckhand opens the trap door. The crabs spill out onto a large metal table, and the crew very quickly sorts them according to size. Only adult male king and opilio crabs can be kept, in order to keep the crab population strong. Failure to adhere to the adult size restrictions results in fines, so it's important that the crew only holds onto the keepers. As the crabs are sorted, the small ones and the females go back into the ocean, and the keepers are sent through a hole in the deck to a saltwater holding tank that keeps the crabs alive for delivery.
Get your sea legs and click ahead to read more about how crab fishing works.