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Government Shutdown Delays Start Of Crab Season


Crabbing season starts today in Alaska, well, except it doesn't. Crabbers and their boats are stuck in port because they can't get the permits that they need to begin their work. Federal workers who issue those permits are off the job because of the partial government shutdown and this is cutting into the short three month Alaska crab season, which is worth upwards of $200 million for the crabbers alone.

We've reached longtime crabber Tom Suryan to hear more. He's the captain for the Bristol Mariner, a crab boat docked in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. And captain, good morning to you.

TOM SURYAN: Good morning.

GREENE: And so Dutch Harbor, just give me a sense of where you are. You're way out in the Aleutian Islands, that chain of islands that extends out into the - way out into the Pacific Ocean, right?

SURYAN: That's correct, yeah. We're west of the Alaska Peninsula so it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

GREENE: You're on your boat right now.

SURYAN: Yes, currently on the boat.

GREENE: Could you tell me how this works? I mean, why are these permits that you're trying to get so important?

SURYAN: Well, without them, we are not legally allowed to fish. We entered into an individual fishing quota system and under that system, national marine fisheries issues each vessel individual fishing quota permits. All the research has been done and the overall quota has been put out. Now, the only thing is the clerical part of producing those permits and with the shutdown, there's no one in the office to do that.

And without those permits in our hands, we can't legally fish.

GREENE: And with a three-month season, I gather there's some real urgency to get going.

SURYAN: There is quite a bit of urgency, especially with the king crab fishery, which we're going to be starting with. The biggest urgency for that fishery is getting crab to Japan for their holiday, their New Year's holiday gift-giving. That needs to be in Japan by about mid-November.

GREENE: How hard a hit would it be if you had to lose, say, a month or so of the season?

SURYAN: A month or so of the season would completely disrupt that market, which would be, you know, 20 to 40 percent of our sales. Long term, we're really concerned about giving up market share to, say, the Russian fisheries, which are somewhat notorious for being rampant with illegal fishing.

GREENE: What about you personally? I mean, if you had to take a month off or so, how does that affect you and your livelihood?

SURYAN: Well, it's seasonal work that we do, so we last fished crab in the spring. This boat has been in shipyard for many months since then with large outlays of capital and just living expenses. You know, we've been months without income, a lot of people, and it's just - beyond that, just mortgage payments and insurance payments and the like.

GREENE: What are you doing while you're waiting? I'm imagining you on a boat just kind of ready to set off and do some crabbing, but without that happening how are you passing the time?

SURYAN: Well, we, you know, we're always busy. There's always something to be done on a boat, although we are completely geared up. We have the pots on board. We have bait on board. So in the meantime, small chores, painting, trying to take care of odds and ends and fortunately, these days, there's Internet in Dutch Harbor and phone service and all that stuff, so unlike 35 years ago when I started, it's pretty easy to stay in touch with people.

GREENE: Well, thanks so much for talking to us and best of luck getting out there.

SURYAN: Thanks very much. I appreciate your interest.

GREENE: That's crabber Tom Suryan who was speaking to us from Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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