More than any other realm of modern human endeavor, commercial fishing has been fired with a belief in the limitlessness of the planet's natural bounty. With that conviction has come a sort of jackpot mentality, the notion that vast, fishy riches lie beneath the ocean's surface, waiting for any bold fisherman with a good boat and a little luck. Yet at the same time, no pursuit has so dramatically shown the catastrophic downside of such magical thinking.
In 1976, Congress asserted American control over the waters off the U.S. coastline, declaring a 200-mile-wide band of ocean as an Exclusive Economic Zone, and eventually kicking out foreign vessels. Suddenly, any American with a boat could get a piece of the action, and Yankee ingenuity ran wild. Then, in 1983, king crab populations in Alaska collapsed. With nothing to catch, the huge fleet of crab boats foundered.
"They just drove a lot of the boats to the dock, dropped the keys at the harbormaster's office, and took the next plane to Seattle," says Rick Lauber, who was the chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council from 1991 until 2001. The banks found themselves with dozens of repossessed boats on their hands. "It was kind of a standing joke," Lauber says, "that Seattle First National Bank" -- which had made more boat loans than any other bank at the time -- "had a deal: When you opened a new account, they gave you your choice of a free toaster, or a crab boat."
Crab populations tend to follow a boom-and-bust dynamic, and crab fishermen ride the wave right along with them. In the aftermath of the crash, a few crabbers hung on, turned their attention to the snow crab fishery, and slowly crawled their way back to solvency. They got a boost from another, unrelated bust -- this one in the Gulf of Mexico's offshore oil industry -- that flooded the market with cheap offshore supply vessels, the do-anything pickup trucks of the boat world.
"There was a fire-sale discount going on in the Gulf of Mexico," says Erik Olson, a vice president with Northwest Farm Credit Services. "If you were an opportunistic fishermen, you could pick up an oil supply boat for 20 cents on the dollar, add a pot hauler and some pumps, and you were ready to go."
The ensuing rebound was another textbook example of the synergistically destructive dynamics of an "open-access" fishery. Would-be fishermen piled boats upon boats onto the water, all trying to wrangle their piece of the action, and each one Rambo'd up his vessel to make it as efficient a crab-catching machine as possible.
For the crab, at least, the situation wasn't as bad as it might have been. Even before the explosion of boats began, fisheries managers had moved to protect crab populations by implementing an overall limit on the number that could be caught without threatening the long-term sustainability of the population. Such quotas are now most commonly known as a Total Allowable Catch, or TAC.
But for the fishermen, the situation was a lot less rosy. "If you just set the TAC and let anybody go fish, and when the (limit) is hit you end the season, that creates an incentive to go and race to catch as much as you can before the season is shut down," says Christopher Costello, a professor of environmental and resource economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "People over-invest in things like big boats, and then no one's making any money -- even if the stock is being fished at (an ecologically) sustainable level."
With too many boats chasing too few crab, fishermen started going broke. They also -- literally -- started going under. In the scramble to catch as much of the quota as possible, boats frequently sailed into fierce Bering Sea storms, and some never returned. Between 1989 and 2005, 10 crab boats sank in the Sea, taking 51 men with them. Another 34 men were lost overboard or killed.
"They were going down left and right," says Arni Thomson, the head of the Alaska Crab Coalition.