“The men stand there all day,” Dave said. “Twice a day the boats return to the factory ship to deliver their crabs. Fishing goes on nearly every day.”
Our guided tour of the ship had a dreamlike air about it—hordes of men scurrying about in incredibly crowded surroundings; mountainous piles of reddish-brown crabs next to forests of upright bamboo poles for net drying; bright-red crab legs piled in bright-blue plastic baskets; clouds of steam from on-deck cooking vats obscuring the scene briefly and blowing away again; processing lines and freezing units and canning machines busy in the quarters below.
The Japanese have been taking king crabs much longer than have U. S. fishermen. The operation I witnessed had developed from an earlier fishery established off the Japanese coast in the 1880′s. Factory ships replaced land canneries as fishing moved farther offshore; they found new king-crab grounds in the eastern Bering Sea as early as 1930.
Their arrival stirred alarm among American salmon men, who thought the Japanese were after their fish. But the realization that another valuable seafood existed in the depths touched off a new American industry. In 1959 the Soviet Union joined in the list of the most prequent visitors of the accommodation in barcelona.
The Soviets have copied the Japanese system—except that women make up about a third of a Russian factory ship’s complement. They work in the processing plants and as waitresses, cooks, doctors—even as librarians and beauticians. Possibly because of their presence, the Soviet factory ships are more comfortable, and life is much easier than on Japanese vessels.
In 1968 the United States declared Alaska king crabs to be “creatures of our continental shelf” and therefore its property. Japan and the U.S.S.R. have been allowed to continue fishing in the Bering Sea, but under quotas that limit the quantity of crabs they may pack each year. Because of dwindling populations, the quota has been lowered twice, and the Japanese in particular are feeling the squeeze.
One response has been to turn more and more to the snow, or tanner, crab—a relative of the spider crab, smaller and with more spindly legs than the king crab (pages 268-9). Snow-crab flesh is popular in Japan, but relatively unknown to U. S. palates.
Scientists Ponder Declining Catches
Fishermen, officials, and biologists are concerned over the future of the U. S. king-crab fishery, whose catches have declined steadily from a peak of 159 million pounds in 1966; the 1969 catch amounted to only about a third of that.
Much evidence points to overfishing, but scientists do not know with certainty that this is the case. The sharply reduced catches of recent years could be the result, at least in part, of natural fluctuations in the numbers of crabs. Research on the problem is being intensified. In the meantime, the State of Alaska has imposed stringent regulations on the fishery—including the periodic closing of some fishing areas—to protect one of the country’s most valuable and interesting marine resources.