The key to de-Rambofying the fishery proved to be a system of catch shares -- essentially, a cap-and-trade system similar to the kind that has come into vogue for fighting things like acid rain and climate change. In the 1970s, Iceland became the first nation to put them into practice, followed by New Zealand.
Under a Total Allowable Catch, each fisherman hustled to catch as much of the pie as he could. With catch shares, by contrast, the pie was sliced up, and each crab boat owner got his own permanent piece, frequently referred to as an individual fishing quota, or IFQ.
In most catch-share programs, one boat owner can sell or lease his shares to another, just as polluters can sell the right to pollute to one another under cap and trade systems. Because there are too many boats relative to fish stocks, many fishermen will end up with catch shares that are too small to be profitable over the long term. But they can sell or lease those shares to other fishermen, who can, in turn, "stack" them onto their own boats.
In the United States, the first two catch-share programs were put in place during the 1980s, on the East Coast. The third U.S. program, approved in 1990, was for halibut and sablefish in the Gulf of Alaska, where so many boats were chasing so few fish that the halibut season had been reduced to just three 24-hour derbies per year. That program went into effect in 1995, and over the next several years, several other Alaskan and one West Coast fishery began operating under catch-share systems, too.
But crab fishermen have always been a breed apart. Many harbored an inherent skepticism of theoretical notions about running the fishery; to them, this one must have smelled like it had been cooked up by some guy in an Adidas track suit at a Scandinavian think tank. "Crabbers are unique," says Linda Kozak, a fisheries consultant based in Kodiak, Alaska. "It takes a special temperament to go out there and battle the elements. Many of them are very stubborn. And a lot of them are extremely paranoid of the political process." (They are also notoriously reticent, and none of the captains who regularly appear on Deadliest Catch responded to repeated attempts to contact them for this story.)
Catch shares cut hard against long tradition, where every season was a roll of the dice and you always ran the risk of crashing and burning -- but you might also hit the jackpot. "At the beginning of the season, there was so much energy in the air that your hair would just stand on end," says Kale Garcia. "And then when you're out on the (fishing) grounds, you're like, 'This is a big ocean, and this crab pot's only seven feet across,' and the next thing you know, you're puking out the window from stress."
But in 1999, crab populations crashed again. To protect the surviving crab, fisheries managers progressively reduced the length of each subsequent season. By 2004, the snow crab season lasted for five days. The king crab season lasted for just three days, giving fishermen just 72 hours to make half their annual income. "If you broke a (drive) shaft, or had a breakdown or an injury," says Garcia, "it could cost you your season."
Crab fishermen grudgingly began yielding to the reality that anything -- even if it seemed like a strange marriage of socialist central planning and neo-liberal economics -- was better than the way the fishery had historically been run. Over the next four years, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees the Alaska fisheries, intensely debated a complex plan to "rationalize" the fishery by introducing catch shares.
The rationalization plan first cut 25 boats -- about 10 percent -- out of the fleet entirely with a $97 million federal buyout. (The remaining boats are now paying back that money through a tax on their landings.) Then the plan divided individual fishing quotas up among the remaining 250-odd boats.
In 2005 -- just six months after Deadliest Catch premiered -- Bering Sea crab fishermen finally began fishing under the catch-share program. In the four years since, red king crab seasons have lasted three months, on average, while the snow crab season has lasted more than seven months. When the IFQ system began, there were 251 boats fishing for red king crab, and 164 fishing for snow crab. Within a year, as boat owners began tying their boats up and leasing their quota shares to other owners, that number had fallen to 89 and 80 boats, respectively.
In contrast to the dice roll of the open-access fishery, under the quota system fishermen know how much crab they'll get before the boat ever leaves the dock. For the banks, it has helped provide stability to what had essentially been a sea-going demolition derby. "You know that a fisherman is going to be allocated x percent of the crab. You can translate that into dollars, and you can get a pretty good idea of what their revenue will be," says Erik Olson, the Farm Credit banker. "That is a huge change. It's the difference between, 'Grab a case of Red Bull, pray for good weather, and buckle up,' and, 'Now we have a business plan.' "
Average catches per boat have gone up considerably. Mark Fina, an economist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, found that the average king crab harvested per vessel in 2007 was about 4.6 times the amount harvested in 2004, the last year of the open-access fishery.
And while the track record is short, there have been no sinkings or major accidents on crab boats since the IFQ program went into place. "The difference is the stress level when you're out there," says Gretar Gudmundsson, who owns a crab boat called the Notorious. "If you don't catch it all that trip, you go in and deliver, because you can go out and get it next time."