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May 17, 2017

A cold day in Cedar Key suddenly seemed warmer as Hannah Healey, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Education Specialist, showed pictures of fishing boats covered in ice.  Her talk for the Cedar Key Historical Society Coffee Series highlighted her time aboard a boat in Alaska’s King Crab Fishery.

About 50 people gathered in the Cedar Key Community Center on Thursday March 16 2017 to hear Hannah’s tales.  Working these boats inspired the Discovery television show titled ‘The Deadliest Catch.”  The title doesn’t refer to the catch itself, but to the fact that about 58 people die per year in the industry, including observer/monitors like Hannah.

The amount of effort involved is staggering: the primary site is the Dutch Harbor fishing grounds located 790 air miles from Anchorage and 2.5 days by boat!  Once at the fishing grounds, boats can stay out on the water for up to 2 weeks or until they catch their limit.  The boats then put in at any one of a number of islands to offload catch.  The fishing season can last for three to four months.

And these seas are not for the faint of heart.  Out on the fishing grounds the smallest waves are eight to 12 feet.  In the heart of the fishing area they can be up to 50 feet.  Hannah, who grew up on Gulf Coast waters, took a little while to adjust and admitted to ‘losing her cookies’ a few times.

“They have a saying on the boats that there are three stages to seasickness,” noted Hannah.  “Afraid you’ll die, afraid you won’t die, and knowing you won’t die”

The waters there were also much cooler than Gulf waters, typically ranging from 30-40F.  “Ice coats the boat like Saran Wrap,” recalled Hannah.  The ice must be kept broken off the boat or buoyancy can be affected.  This year, such an ice covering sank a boat.


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The boats average 125 feet in length and weigh 300 gross tons when empty. Crab pots measure seven feet cubed and are strung together 20 to 25 on a line.  Each crab trap alone weighs 1000 pounds!   The boat also boasts a crane that can haul in 3000 pounds, a sorting table, a crab pot launcher, and a bait grinder in addition to living space.

The ‘boys’ (referring to the all-male crew)– including the 70-year-old captain – liked her.  Hannah thinks it helped to be a girl among all the boys on boats. “They kind of saw me like a daughter and that helped me get more accepted.” One way they demonstrated their affection was by tying Hannah to the boat railing for safety.

Hannah’s job, as an Alaska Fish and Game observer, included documenting illegal activity, collecting crab population data, and ensuring adherence to regulations, including coast guard safety and compliance.  If the boat hauled in 20 pots per day, she would typically look at eight pots and record sex, size, disease, females with eggs, and keeper crabs.  It is currently illegal to keep any female and any undersized male, although there is a built-in forgiveness period for catching either of these.  These data help the government set catch quotas to maintain sustainable fisheries well into the future.

So why do the job?  Well a 10-pound crab can sell for $300.00. In 2016, a quota of 10 million pounds (yep, you read that right!) would bring in 30 million dollars.  The boat owner might make 2 million dollars in a season with the captain taking home 1.3 million dollars.  Hannah’s pay for the season: $2,700.00.  Hannah’s boat caught their quota itwo 2 weeks.  High risk and high payoff.

Hannah lives in Cedar Key and splits her time with the FWC as a marine educator and biologist. Look for her around town this summer teaching fishing camps.   



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