One of the most treacherous aspects of the Bering Sea is the weather. The king and opilio crab seasons in Alaska are in October and January when the weather isn't kind. Strong winds, storms, snow and ice pummel everything in the boats' paths, tossing them back and forth over 20- to 40-foot (6- to 12-meter) waves.
The weather also brings ice -- the arch enemy of a fishing boat. In temperatures between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17 and minus 6 degrees Celsius), ice can build up fast and cause a boat to become extremely unstable. A full load of iced-over crab pots can add an additional 45 tons (41 metric tons) to the overall load, and that doesn't even count the ice built up on the boat itself. For this reason, during icy weather the crew is constantly using sledgehammers to break any ice buildup. Another danger is falling ice. There's a lot of overhead equipment on a crab boat that can freeze over. If the sun comes out, and the ice begins to melt, look out for falling ice. A 50-pound (22-kilogram) ice block dropping from 20 feet (6 meters) up could easily kill a deckhand.
Ice can also form at sea as ice packs. A surface temperature of 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 degrees Celsius) will freeze the top layer of saltwater. Freezing sea spray collects on these frozen surfaces, and the ice pack actually connects and grows into one large iced-over surface. Ice packs can grow up to 25 square miles (64 square kilometers) per day. Besides the inherent dangers of moving a boat through icy waters, the ice can also trap the buoys and crab pots underneath it and send them up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) from where they were dropped. It can get expensive fast if a captain starts losing gear -- a crab pot costs about $1,000 to replace.
Another deadly aspect of the job is the sheer exhaustion the crew faces. When the fish are biting, the captains are relentless, pushing their crews to work as long as two days straight without sleep. Couple that with backbreaking work and a boat that's constantly being tossed back and forth with large waves washing over the rails, and you have a recipe for disaster. Tired workers can get careless, and carelessness can mean the difference between life and death. If your leg gets caught in a line of rope, you could be pulled overboard. If you're feeding a bait-cutting machine and look away, it can suck your arm in. If you're drowsy, you might not see that pot swinging your way and get crushed like an egg. You get the picture.
To make crab fishing safer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has instituted a quota system. In the past, there were too many boats at sea competing for the same crabs. Up to 250 boats in all shapes and sizes battled each other each fishing season derby style, meaning each boat was permitted to catch as many as it could within a set period of time. It simply got too crowded. Now, each boat is only permitted to catch a certain amount, and the number of boats has dropped to about 80. Quotas vary by boat, depending on size and fishing history.
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