The Most Cooked-Up Catch

Saving fisheries — and taking the edge off the dangerous derby of the sea.

  • Deckhand Scott Hillstrand shows off a large Alaskan red king crab on the deck of the Time Bandit, on the Bering Sea.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • Crabs are hoisted aboard the Pacific Wind on the Bering Sea.

  • Deckhand Chris "Chilly" Anderson with a pair of 15-plus-pound Alaskan Red king crabs, caught in the Bering Sea.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • Another day of sorting crabs on the frozen deck of the Rollo, with the temperature at -20 and the swell on the Bering Sea at 30 feet.

    Cameron Glendenning
  • In the hold below deck, 120,000 pounds of Bering Sea king crab are ready to be offloaded in King Cove, Alaska.

    Cameron Glendenning

It's hard to put a finger on what drives the wild popularity of Deadliest Catch, the Discovery Channel's series about crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Pulling load after load of crustaceans off the bottom of the ocean seems like pretty thin stuff for a runaway entertainment phenomenon. Yet the show has somehow won over more than 4 million viewers and garnered five seasons of red-hot ratings.

Granted, the weekly drama of the Red Bull-guzzling, cigarette-huffing, bleepity-bleeping captains doing battle with 13 million pounds of king crab does give the show a certain NASCAR-worthy je ne sais quoi. But if there's a single secret ingredient behind the show's success, it is the drama of the multimillion-dollar fishing derby -- starring the likes of Phil Harris, spitting blood and tearing his hair out as his boat gradually falls apart around him, and Johnathan Hillstrand, like a Hells Angel behind the wheel of the Time Bandit -- to catch as many crabs as possible before the government drops the checkered flag on the season. Though it's not much discussed on the show, the scramble for crab is just a videogenic symptom of a larger -- and potentially catastrophic -- problem in fishing: Too many boats chasing too few fish.

"You could've had 25 boats easily catching the whole quota," says Edward Poulsen, a second-generation Bering Sea crab fisherman. "But there were 300 boats."

That free-for-all brought a host of problems, from environmental damage caused by carpet-bombing the ocean floor with crab pots, to bankruptcies and a chilling roster of lost fishermen and boats that sank after they ventured out into fierce storms so they wouldn't get left behind in the race. For years, crab fishing in the Bering Sea was the deadliest job in the country -- more likely to kill you than going on foot patrol in Iraq.

But even as the Deadliest Catch rocketed to popularity, the hard lessons of two decades of racing for fish were finally sinking in for fishermen in the Bering Sea, and they were voluntarily agreeing to end the race. You'd never know it from watching the show, but only one season after it hit TV screens, crab fishermen in Alaska began fishing under a new system that permanently divided up the annual catch between all the boats in the fishery. 

"The whole dynamic of the fishery has changed," says Kale Garcia, another longtime crab fisherman, who owns a boat called the Aquila.

In the Bering Sea today, the race for crab is now over. But the fishery there is just one ripple in the tide of a revolution that has swept the fishing world over the past 20 years. Today, fisheries for everything from fish-stick staples like whiting and pollock to high-end delicacies like halibut and sablefish operate under "catch share" programs. Many more, including a major groundfish fishery on the West Coast and one in New England, are now following suit. Jane Lubchenco, the marine biologist who now heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (which manages the nation's fisheries) has launched a concerted effort to institute catch-share programs in as many U.S. fisheries as possible.

Yet even as the tide rises for catch shares, the fleet and the crews in the Bering Sea are still contending with far-reaching aftereffects -- something not seen on TV, and not much discussed by catch-share boosters.

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.

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."

Catch-share programs like the one for Bering Sea crab are becoming increasingly common amid growing concern over the general state of the world's fisheries. In 2006, a research team led by Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, found that about 27 percent of the world's fisheries have collapsed. More ominously, the team's paper, which was published in Science, suggested that every fishery in the world might collapse by 2048.

Then, last year, Costello, the scientist, and several of his colleagues published an analysis of catch shares that received wide attention. They found that, of 121 fisheries managed using IFQs -- which are also referred to as Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQs -- "the fraction of ITQ-managed fisheries that were collapsed was about half that of non-ITQ fisheries." The paper suggested that implementing a catch-share program can stop and actually reverse the decline of fish populations.

Some observers contend that, in fact, the bulk of the conservation benefit may actually come from having a good, scientifically determined TAC, rather than the catch shares themselves. "A lot of people are asking that now," says Costello. "I don't know of anybody who's done a careful job teasing out what benefit you get from just having a TAC." 

Still, he says, the kinds of individual quotas that come with a catch-share program help conservation: "When you implement an ITQ, there is better adherence to the TAC. If you're responsible for every fish you catch, then people don't bust through the TAC as often." And, he adds, "When you have an ITQ, you fish more slowly. It's not like the (old) three-day season, where you're out dragging every inch of habitat because you have to catch as much as you can, as quickly as you can."

Several environmental groups have taken up Costello's study as evidence of the need to use catch-share programs more widely. Other fishery-management regimes have tended to trigger a "never-ending cat-and-mouse game," says David Festa, the vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's West Coast operations. Limiting the length of the season, for instance, only spurred boat owners to turn their vessels into even better fish-catching machines.

"The key," he says, "is moving to a system where you give the fishermen direct accountability for the fish they catch." And, Festa adds, once fishermen are given a share in the resource -- and therefore have a stake in it -- they will fish in ways that allow fish populations to increase. "The incentive is to make sure you're growing the overall health of the stock, to increase your slice of the pie," he says.

Other environmental groups are more critical. Phil Kline is the ocean campaigns manager for Greenpeace, which has joined with several other groups to form the Marine Fish Conservation Network. Kline says that it's important that catch-share programs be structured to prevent individual quota owners from amassing too large a percentage of the total available shares; have tough conservation requirements; be granted as a revocable privilege rather than an absolute right to catch fish; and provide new fishermen the opportunity to cast their hand in the fishery.

Nonetheless, Kline says, the Network has given qualified support to the catch-share concept -- a position that stands in marked contrast to an earlier stance of outright opposition. "This is a position that Greenpeace, as well as the broader environmental community, has evolved to over the past 15 years," Kline says. "It was not realistic to maintain a position of just no nothing on any of this."

There now seems, in fact, to be a certain inevitability to the rising tide of catch shares. Last fall, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees fisheries regulations for Washington, Oregon and California, approved an IFQ program for the trawl fleet there. And this June, the New England Fishery Management Council approved a catch-share program for the New England groundfish fleet. The same month, Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, created an agency task force to implement catch shares as broadly as possible.

For all the good news that comes with catch shares, there is a downside. They often bring heavy costs to fishing crewmen. And just as any acknowledgment of the end of the race for fish is taboo on Deadliest Catch, the social cost of catch shares has essentially been relegated to footnotes in the reams of slick literature put out by pro-IFQ environmental groups.

A recent study by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council found that, since the crab catch-share system was implemented, and the number of boats on the water subsequently reduced, average revenues per boat have almost quadrupled. But the deckhands on those same boats have only slightly more than doubled their pay, on average. That's largely because when boat owners lease quota from other boats to stack onto theirs, they pay heavy lease fees, much of which they pass on to the crew.

For at least some crewmen, that casts into sharp relief the divide between how boat owners and their crew have fared under rationalization. Many boat owners were struggling before rationalization. "Some of these guys were desperate to get a catch-share program so they could sell out," says Linda Kozak, the Kodiak-based consultant. "We call it a graceful exit."

With rationalization, those owners suddenly became armchair fishermen. "A lot of the guys just park their boat and lease their quota out," says Steve Branson, a Kodiak-based crewman. "They just go to the mailbox and pick up their royalty check." 

In a hard-won concession, those captains who didn't own their own vessels received 3 percent of the total catch shares. But the deckhands received nothing. Traditionally, they could buy into a boat by increments, becoming a part owner as they proved their mettle. Now, though, they have to purchase catch shares before they can even think about fishing on their own.

There's also some evidence of a new emphasis on running boats as cheaply as possible. With a fixed catch, the main way to increase your margin is to drive down operating costs. "It used to be about how much you could catch," one former crewman told the authors of another recent North Pacific Fishery Management Council report. "Now it's about how cheap you can catch it."

That report also noted a growing concern among crewmen that boat owners are now more likely to hire deckhands, including undocumented immigrants, on a wage basis, rather than dealing them in on a share of the boat's earnings, as has traditionally been done.

But the biggest impact has been shouldered by crewmen who have lost their jobs on boats that no longer fish. For each boat that has left the fishery, five to six crew jobs went with it. Mark Fina, the fishery council economist, has estimated that as many as 975 crewmen -- more than half the total who worked in the fishery -- have lost their crabbing jobs since rationalization.

And for those crew members, the exit from the business may not be that graceful. Unlike laid-off auto workers, they receive no severance package. Though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, it seems fairly clear that crewmen who lost their jobs on Alaska-based boats from ports like Kodiak have had to leave for work elsewhere. "Some guy, now, instead of being a fisherman in Alaska like he always dreamed of," says Rick Lauber, "is making tires in a factory in Dayton."

The asymmetrical impacts of the boat consolidation rankle many former crewmen. "Sure, there were too many boats. But whose fault is that?" says Corey Eisenbarth, another deckhand. "The people that built the boats and over-exploited the fishery are the same guys who got all the money."

But many boat owners argue that they should, by rights, receive the bulk of the catch shares and the money that comes with them. Unlike deckhands, they've made large capital investments in the business. And, they point out, rationalization simply hastened what was an inevitable fate for the people who are now jobless. "That was going to happen regardless, because we didn't have a sustainable fleet size," says Edward Poulsen.

That may be the unavoidable bottom line in most fisheries, whether they're run under catch shares or not. Julie Wormser is Environmental Defense's New England Oceans Program director. For the past several years, she's been closely involved in the creation of the new IFQ plan for the groundfish fishery in New England, a region famously battered by years of mismanagement and intense competition for dwindling stocks of fish. Finding equitable solutions for out-of-work crewmen is "the touchiest question," she concedes. "It's a real cost."

But she argues that a traditional derby-style fishery -- like the one that viewers tune in every week to supposedly see on Deadliest Catch -- is pretty brutal, too. "Everybody's fishing to put everybody else out of business," she says. "And the alternatives aren't catch shares versus some dreamy universe where everybody has a good job. It's catch shares versus a continued downward spiral."