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Bering Sea crab crash puts Pribilof Island’s emergency medical services in jeopardy

Ethan Candyfire

The collapse of the Bering Sea crab fisheries has put St. Paul Island at risk of losing some of its essential services.

The city’s economy is about 90% dependent on the harvest of snow crab, which closed for the first time in the fishery’s history in October. Without Bering Sea snow crab or Bristol Bay red king crab — which has been closed since 2021 — the City of St. Paul is estimating a roughly $2.7 million hit.

In light of those anticipated losses, St. Paul’s city government declared a cultural, economic and social emergency in late October following the fishery closures, and subsequently implemented budgetary cuts, hiring freezes and other measures.

Now, the Pribilof Island community faces the loss of its emergency medical services.

The community of about 350 people has one emergency medical technician — who is currently off island. And according to City Manager Phil Zavadil, there is only enough funding to employ them through the rest of the month. After that, the remote community will have to rely on local volunteers, who don’t have the extensive training or knowledge of a certified EMT.

“Essentially, if something were to happen, we'll go grab somebody in the ambulance and take them to the clinic, and that's pretty much the extent of what can be done,” Zavadil said. 

He said that’s not ideal, but “with 60% of tax revenue gone, with no crab season, you have to make those tough choices.”

The city hires EMTs rather than relying on volunteers through the police force, which they had done previously, until the entire force resigned in late 2021 due to a mandatory vaccination requirement for city workers. It costs about $160,000 a year for the EMT contract, according to Zavadil.

He said there are emergency trauma technicians on the island, but they don’t have the extensive training of an EMT who is certified by the state to perform various lifesaving procedures.

Zavadil estimates that the city has a budget deficit of roughly $900,000, and he said city officials are working to avoid overspending now, which could eventually lead to mass layoffs and bankruptcy later on.

We're in a difficult spot,” he said. “As I talk to our staff and others, I have to caution them of overspending because we don't know how long the crab crash is gonna last.”

The city is relying on donations to keep its medical services. The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island and the Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association have donated enough money to keep the city’s contracted emergency medical services through the end of January.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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  • The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been closed for two years, and along with it, Bering Sea snow crab have abruptly disappeared, causing another complete closure. Together, the fisheries generally bring in millions of dollars to the fleet and the coastal Alaska communities that rely on them. Since 2021, when king crab closed and snow crab saw a huge decline in harvest numbers, fishermen have taken an estimated $287.7 million hit. Without those fisheries and without that revenue, more and more boats are relying on other work like fishing for cod and small amounts of bairdi crab or summer tendering gigs just to make ends meet. So when a group of Bering Sea fishermen recently heard they’d be getting paid less than they hoped for cod this winter season, they figured they couldn’t afford to just sit by. But that’s exactly what they did. When the season opened, they didn’t go out to fish…and it worked.
  • Bering Sea snow crab will close for the first time in the fishery’s history. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Monday afternoon that snow crab — also known as opilio crab — and Bristol Bay red king crab would not open for the upcoming fall and winter fishing seasons. Miranda Westphal, an area management biologist for ADF&G, said stocks are just too low to justify opening either fishery. “All of our crab stocks in the Bering Sea have seen declines the last few years,” Westphal said. “[For] red king crab, we've been seeing declines for a little over a decade now. We just see very little recruitment coming into the population — not a lot of crab maturing into a fishable size. And so we're just seeing more of that this year.”
  • A collection of 50-year-old audio recordings from the Aleutians have been digitized and are now accessible online.The recordings were part of an Unalaska school project from the ‘70s. A group of students and their teacher recorded various Elders in hopes of documenting the language, culture and history of the Unangax̂ community and the Aleutian region.There’s about 60 reel-to-reel audio tapes that make up the collection. They include topics from day-to-day activities to historic events, fishing stories and recipes, to accounts from Makushin and the other lost villages that were forcibly evacuated during World War II.