National fisheries managers who are supposed to assign individual quotas for the multimillion-dollar harvest before its scheduled opening next week are among federal workers who have been furloughed.
Fishermen said Wednesday there is no time to waste in cashing in on the lucrative market in Japan, where the crab is highly prized for holiday celebrations—and that means getting the catch on the way to the island nation by mid-November.
Missing Japan's holiday season could mean a loss of up to $7 million.
Lance Farr, a Seattle-based boat owner, has a crew of six just waiting in Alaska's Dutch Harbor. Everyone is wondering how long it will take before they can begin. For many Bering Sea crabbers, the Bristol Bay fishery represents half of their yearly income.
"They're anxious to get going," Farr said. "I'm worried that we're not going to get anything done in D.C."
A National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement official said crabbers harvesting without their required quota permits would violate the law.
"We have to follow the regulations," said Matt Brown, head of the service's enforcement office in Alaska. "It's a violation to fish without a permit, so we would have to take enforcement action."
Catch limits are set by state fishery managers, but the national agency sets the quotas. The crab fishery needs both to function. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
As long as the quotas remain unassigned, all crews can do is sit and wait at Dutch Harbor. That means boat owners are accumulating costs of about $1,000 a day for such expenses as insurance, mortgage fees and food for crew members, said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Seattle-based trade association, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, which represents about 70 percent of the fishermen working on 80 boats in the fishery.
"Now it's up to the feds to resolve the budget impasse and put their people to work so we can put our people to work," Gleason said.
In a letter Wednesday to U. S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and U.S. Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, noted that fishermen of Alaska's red king crab "are fully paying for the costs of managing" the fishery through a cost recovery program administered by the Commerce Department through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The letter urges Pritzker to direct NOAA to immediately begin the quota-issuing process for fishermen and processors to ensure the fishery opens on schedule.
"The timing of this opening will ensure proper management of this public resource, and the ability of crab fisherman and processors to pay the full cost for the administration of this program," the letter states.
As for how a late start or no start would affect production of the Discovery Channel reality show, Discovery spokesman Phil Zimmerman said, "I don't think we can comment on this at this time."
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