Danger and Routine: An Inside Look at Alaska's Fishing and Crabbing Industry
Alaska is the only state in the country with a mandate for sustainable seafood written into its State Constitution.
Every year, the Alaskan seafood industry feeds millions of people across the United States and throughout the world. The state not only supplies over half of the wild-caught seafood in the US and up to 95 percent of North America's wild salmon, but is one of the most sustainable seafood industries in the world. In fact, it's only state in the country with a mandate for sustainable seafood written into its State Constitution.
Earlier this fall, photographer Zandy Mangold joined fishing and crabbing crews in Unalaska and Seward to document the lives of fishermen and processors that make it all possible. Mangold's photo essay here highlights a combination of the intense and unforgiving conditions of Alaskan nature as well as everyday rituals experienced by people who work to harness it all into a vibrant, sustainable industry.
In Unalaska, an Alaskan city with a population just under 5,000, bald eagles are a regular sighting. Because they scavenge through garbage the way squirrels might, residents refer to the majestic bird as "pests."
This is par for the course in Alaska, where vast swathes of nature are dotted with isolated pockets of humanity that subsist on a highly practical, independent, and sometimes near-survivalist lifestyle.
Some of these pockets are defined by the availability of fish and crabs. There, communities center around the seafood industry, both catching and processing huge amounts every year.
During fishing season, fishing boats will stay at sea for about a week, returning to shore to sell the load to a processor, then heading back out again.
In Unalaska, fishermen first try to fill their quota of valuable king crab before switching to fish. The quotas limit how much of each type of fish or crab can be caught each year, in order to prevent overfishing.
On one trip out, fishermen didn't begin working on deck until it was pitch black, the wind began picking up, and rain started drenching the wildly pitching boat.
Through it all, the fishermen put on their waterproof clothes and boots, and started throwing around heavy crab traps without much thought to danger.
When asked how they manage not to fall into the ocean, fishermen told us: "Well, you just make sure you don't fall into the ocean." (Followed, of course, by a cautionary story about someone who wasn't so lucky).
Commercial fishing in Alaska breeds a high level of resilience. Back on the shore, some don't even bother changing clothes for weather.
One Captain, Dan Jensen, even stood through freezing rain in a very non-waterproof coat. Asked how he managed, Captain Dan says: “Well, you know its gonna change again, so, I'm not gonna worry about it.”
To operate in such rough conditions, fishermen are meticulous about their work and methods. But if something isn't a priority, it is very much not a priority.
Here's a look inside an onboard bunk.
Fishermen say they sleep in very short shifts that max out at two hours.
The reason for so much of the intensity boils down to the catch. Either the ships catch and sell as much as legally allowed during short seasonal windows, or they have to wait until the next one.
There's no time to waste, and back in town, it's rare to even eat catches like king crab. After all, each one you eat is one less you can sell.
As intense as the sights and sounds of the condensed fishing period is though, they're rivaled by another sense: smell.
A fisherman chops up fish to use as bait. This cod, for example, will be put inside a crab trap, also called a crab pod, to attract the crab.
Freshly caught fish pile up over the course of each expedition, but before going to market, each one is processed in one of the plants on shore.
Inside a processing plant.
With the exception of king salmon, rockfish, and oysters, each type of seafood can only be harvested during particular seasons in Alaska. King Crab, for example, can only be caught during a three month period at the beginning of the year, and a two month period at the end.
The harvesting and processing operations Unalaska and Seward are far from alone in Alaska. The seafood industry is the largest private employer in the state.
Alaska currently leads all states in catch volume, producing 60 percent of the country's total, which it continues to do thanks to the collaborative sustainability efforts of the people at every level of the supply chain. A chain which, unfortunately, could soon see major changes.
Currently, as detailed by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska uses a combination of practices like its catch quotas, hundreds of thousands of miles of human-free Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), fishing boat and equipment regulations, and more to preserve an ecosystem that has kept harvests consistently healthy and abundant every year, and meant that no species Alaska seafood has ever been listed as endangered.
But as of 2017, areas like the Bristol Bay watershed, part of the migration cycle of 56 million sockeye salmon every year, could be opened up to mining operations that could strain or even destroy its ecosystem. As CNN reports, the Trump administration is moving to lift regulations and allow Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian mining company, to build a gold and copper mine that could permanently damage the salmon run that helps generate 14,000 jobs and $480 million in revenue every year.
And Bristol Bay is just one of many areas experiencing similar potential disruptions. So as Alaska's seafood industry faces these potential shifts, one thing is clear: Alaska's huge, sustainable, and of course, delicious seafood industry isn't just there—it's the product of tens of thousands of people who, like those in Unalaska and Seward, apply their dedication to and knowledge of Alaska's land and sea to make it happen every day. Often risking their lives to do so. And as these photos show, none of it should be taken for granted.