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Into the ice: A crab boat’s quest for snow crab in a Bering Sea upended by climate change

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The Pinnacle makes its way through a Bering Sea ice floe Jan. 25 southwest of St. Matthew Island. Ocean warming has put at risk the historic Alaska crab fishery. After a dismal summer survey, state biologists slashed this year’s harvest of snow crab by nearly 90% from 2021 levels.

This story was reported in partnership with the Seattle Times and the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.

ABOARD THE PINNACLE, Bering Sea — Through the wheelhouse window, captain Mark Casto spotted a white line on the horizon. The edge of an ice floe was illuminated by bow lights piercing the morning darkness of the Bering Sea.

He throttled back the engines. Soon, the Seattle-based crab boat began to nose through closely packed pancake-like pieces and bigger craggy chunks, some the size of boulders, which bobbed about in the currents and clanged against the hull.

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Captain Mark Casto navigates the Pinnacle through an ice floe north of St. Paul Island the night of Jan. 17. The crew has to watch out for larger pieces of ice, which oftentimes cannot be seen on the radar. An ice floe can damage buoys, increasing the risk of a lost crab pot.

Casto had hoped this patch of sea would yield a bountiful catch of snow crab to help fill up the boat. Nearby, a few hours earlier, he had set more than two dozen baited pots along the sea bottom. Now, he risked losing them in the fast-moving ice.

Casto grabbed a microphone to relay a change in plans to the deck crew. Pull the pots up and stack them aboard. They would search for crab somewhere else.

“Where the hell did that ice floe come from? … We’re retreating. It’s a hard word to say,” Casto declared.

Scrambled seas

Casto and his crew had ventured to this northern realm of the Bering Sea in search of a crab that for decades was found in great abundance in rich fishing grounds more than 200 miles to the south. But in the aftermath of a period of extreme ocean warming, the populations of snow crab imploded in the traditional harvest areas off the Pribilof Islands.

This has put at risk a historic Alaska fishery that during two boom years in the early 1990s tallied more than 300 million pounds of the green-eyed crustacean with spindly legs, hauls even greater than the highest years of the king crab harvests. After a dismal summer survey, Alaska state biologists slashed this year’s harvest of snow crab to just 5.6 million pounds — down nearly 90% from 2021 levels.

The winter ice is a key ally to the snow crab. It helps in the growth of algae at the base of the food chain, and is vital to the formation of a vast cold pool at the sea bottom that acts as a safe haven for snow crab to escape predators who prefer warmer temperatures.

Climate scientists forecast the Bering’s ice cover will be in long-term retreat in a 21st century where greenhouse gas emissions — spurred by the combustion of fossil fuels on land, in the air and at sea — unevenly warm the planet. Temperatures are rising in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the Bering Sea much faster than regions farther south.

The Bering Sea winter ice in 2018 was at the lowest point on record, and 2019 also was a bust. Researchers expect such winters to be the norm by midcentury as climate change escalates. Already, the warming in those two years has been linked to wide-ranging changes in a sea that sustains seabirds, marine mammals and fisheries that yield the biggest harvests in North America.

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“These are human-caused events. It’s us,” said Mike Litzow, a federal fishery biologist who directs a shellfish laboratory in Kodiak.

The 2022 snow crab harvest began under much colder conditions as crews in January went north in search of the biggest males preferred by processors. The ice formed early and threatened to close off the open water in some of the best crabbing areas.

Casto often cursed the ice for all the complications, and risks, it added to their winter harvest.

But for him and many crabbers, the winter ice also was a welcome sight, a tangible sign of hope for at least a short-term resurgence in the snow crab populations and the fishery they sustain.

“The Bering Sea needs a hard reset to bring the temperature back in check,” Casto said.

Stacked pots

Snow squalls alternated with sunbreaks as the Pinnacle on Jan. 15 berthed at Captains Bay, Unalaska. The only constant was a sharp wind that cut through work gloves and numbed fingers as Casto and the Pinnacle’s seven crew worked ashore to make final preparations for the winter harvest.

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The crew of the Pinnacle rigs crab pots on Jan. 15 in Dutch Harbor. The pots are stored in Dutch Harbor during the off-season, and sometimes need minor repairs before each season.

More than 150 pots would be used to catch the snow crab. They were stowed in long rows along a flat stretch of shoreline beneath a snow-streaked mountain. Each of these steel-framed traps needed to be rigged with buoys and shots of lines that would be attached when the pots were baited and set along the sea bottom.

The Pinnacle is part of a Bering Sea crab fleet that during the past decade has sometimes grossed more than $200 million in annual harvests for king, snow and other crab. Some of the boats are based in Kodiak or other Alaska ports, others in Oregon and Washington, where an earlier generation of crabbers help pioneer the harvests in the 1960s.

The snow crab targeted by the Pinnacle this winter are smaller than the red king crab, and are sold as clusters of legs in supermarkets, or in seafood restaurants like Red Lobster.

The Pinnacle left Seattle on Jan. 5, traveling more than 2,000 miles during a 9-day voyage to reach the Aleutian port of Dutch Harbor, where the crew loaded water and other supplies but, to keep COVID-19 at bay, forfeited the traditional dinners at The Chart Room.

Preparing the pots was their last and biggest task in nearby Captains Bay. The crew spent that day — and part of the evening — tying hundreds of knots in rope turned stiff from the cold and lifting the heavy gear aboard.

Their progress was tracked by bald eagles, which circled overhead and perched on the boat’s crane, always on the lookout for crab bait they could make into a meal.

The captain

Casto went to work in the Alaska harvests at the age of 10, when his father, Walt, first started bringing him north from their home in Westport, Grays Harbor, to catch king crab in a Norton Sound summer harvest.

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Pinnacle captain Mark Casto laughs as he talks with his crew on Jan. 14 in Dutch Harbor. Casto has been fishing in the Bering Sea for decades.

Mark Casto, along with his younger brother, Glenn, had free rein to roam their father’s boat, the Westward Wind. They learned how to crab, endlessly practicing throwing grappling hooks and coiling lines.

By 18, Mark was a crewman — and made crab boat captain by the age of 21. Glenn became a captain at 26, and decades later — skippering separate boats — they fish as partners, sharing tips about the best spots to crab.

Today, Mark is majority owner of the 137-foot Pinnacle, one of the biggest boats in the fleet. Now a wiry man at 53 with a salt-and-pepper beard, he spends most of his time at the helm, where he often checks in with his brother for radio chats that last deep into the night.

Casto is filled with a kind of restless energy and relishes an occasional foray onto the deck to help bring in crab. He’s even happier if he can pull off a prank, such as the stealth pinning of a makeshift donkey tail, formed out of twine and a hook, on the bottom of a crewman. “Hee haw,” he would cackle.

Casto has thrived in a crab fleet that has gone through huge changes, booming in the late 20th century to more than 250 boats then contracting in recent years to fewer than 70.

As a younger skipper, Mark Casto was a fierce competitor in a system that rewarded those who worked fast — and took risks — to claim as much crab as possible before state managers closed the harvest.

And in 1998, he and his father finished building the Pinnacle, which has the ability to hold some 400,000 pounds of crab in six seawater tanks, more than double the capacity of many smaller boats.

Big hauls on the Pinnacle put him in a strong position in 2005, when a major harvest reform ended the race for the crab. This was called “rationalization,” and it vested boat owners and captains with shares of the harvest based on past catch records.

Under the new system, Casto knows at the start of the season just how many pounds he can catch. He can wait out a storm without worrying about losing crab to bolder captains.

“I absolutely fought it (rationalization) the entire time,” Casto recalled. “I was like, ‘Let the strongest survive.’ Right now, I love it.”

The crew

During breaks in the pot-rigging, crew members climbed back aboard the Pinnacle and warmed up in a three-story house that rises fortress-like — but full of comforts — from the stern of the boat.

The first floor is largely consumed by a spacious galley with a big walk-in freezer and a table set with jars full of peanut M&M’s and other candy for quick-energy snacks.

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Mike Grant, with radio, practices making a mayday call as part of a safety briefing on Jan. 16 aboard the Pinnacle in the Bering Sea. From left, captain Mark Casto, first mate Eben Brown, David Lethin, Grant, Jack Bunnell, Stephen Jamieson, and Jerret Kummer.

The second floor has bunk rooms, with big flat-screen monitors for movies, and a washing machine and showers with plenty of hot water.

The third-floor wheelhouse is Casto’s domain. He has his own bedroom posted with a sign that reads, “When all else fails, try doing what the captain suggested.” He has a Keurig coffee maker for fresh brews and a table, just behind the helm, where on occasion he joins in games of cribbage.

The most senior crew member is Mike Grant, the Pinnacle’s engineer responsible for maintaining deck equipment and two 1,000 horsepower engines, each of which can consume nearly 30 gallons of fuel an hour at a cruising speed of about 12 mph.

Grant is 50 years old, ancient by crabbers’ standard, and has spent nearly half his life working for Casto aboard the Pinnacle. He operates a deck crane that stacks pots on board, and still pitches in with a lot of other grueling work that involves sorting crab and lifting lines. In his hometown of Westport, his offseason routine includes weightlifting and 5-mile walks.

Grant says Casto is willing to make the investments needed to maintain the Pinnacle, and that has kept Grant coming back each season, where he joins a veteran crew.

“Everyone knows each others’ moves, and it’s way safer. We take pride in the boat,” Grant said. “If there’s a problem, it’s addressed. Mark makes sure of that. And if it’s fixed, it’s fixed right.”

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Pinnacle crewman Mike Grant welds a support piece to a crane aboard the Pinnacle on Jan. 14 in Dutch Harbor.

The Pinnacle’s crab harvests have not been featured on “Deadliest Catch,” the reality series following Bering Sea crabbers since 2005.

During the show’s early years, a series producer visited the Pinnacle and — after reviewing a video Grant made of harvest operations — didn’t offer to put the Pinnacle on the show, according to Grant and Casto. They say the producer concluded the boat, with its protective shelter deck and no-drama crew, would not make good television.

“The comment I got from the production lady was like, ‘You guys are like crab robots. Everyone gets along,’” Grant recalled.

But they do have strong feelings about the crab harvests. Even amid his loyalty to Casto, Grant is frustrated by the reforms that vested boat owners and captains with catch shares but failed to grant any to crew. He views that as an inequitable transfer of resource wealth, and a bitter slap at those whose deck work puts them most at risk.

Still, crew earnings aboard the Pinnacle are some of the best in the fleet.

In 2021, just before the dramatic cut in quota, the Pinnacle’s 1.6 million-pound harvest of snow crab brought in more than $7 million. Much of that money gets reinvested in supplies and maintenance of the boat that this past year included a $500,000 engine overhaul. Grant’s share that year amounted to more than $200,000 for 14 weeks of work.

The pay for the youngest crew member, 27-year-old Alaskan Jack Bunnell, initially was about $125,000 with an additional $30,000 that he said came in later in the year.

Casto’s two sons have opted for careers in fashion photography and teaching, so the bushy-bearded Bunnell represents the next generation of Pinnacle crabbers — “generation kick-ass,” he declared in response to taunts from other crew while they rigged pots.

Bunnell hopes to one day become a skipper on the Pinnacle or some other crab boat. But he wonders if he was born too late.

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Pinnacle crewman Jack Bunnell rigs crab pots in Captains Bay on Jan. 14 in Dutch Harbor. Bunnell, who grew up in Homer, is the only crewman from Alaska.

Growing up in the Southcentral coastal town of Homer, Bunnell heard tales from his grandfather about the once-booming king crab fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, which crashed in early the 1980s and never came back. His father worked in the heyday of the Bering Sea red king crab fishery, which this past fall was put on hold due to conservation concerns. Now, he fears for the snow crab.

“In the future, I’d like to be in the wheelhouse,” he said. “That’s where I have my goal set. But if there’s no crab to catch, then I will never be a skipper.”

A prayer and departure

On the deck of the Pinnacle, the crew unfolded two large blue tarps. They lashed the first to the front of the stack of pots that — with the aid of a crane — had been brought aboard from Captains Bay dock. The second one was strapped around the starboard side.

It was the evening of Jan. 15, the Pinnacle’s final night in port. The tarps were a special request from Casto, prompted by a marine forecast of heavy freezing spray in the northern Bering Sea.

En route to the harvest, freezing spray would add extra weight that could impair the boat’s stability. The tarps were supposed to help shield the pots, each 8 feet tall when stood on end and weighing more than 900 pounds with gear.

“We’re going to be making ice. The only question is how much,” Casto said.

Through the decades, dozens of Alaska crabbers have died in boats that rolled over after accumulating too much ice generated by freezing spray.

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Jerret Kummer helps secure crab pots aboard the Pinnacle on Jan. 15 in Dutch Harbor. For this particular trip, captain Mark Casto decided to bring 150 crab pots and 15 cod pots, which must be carefully stacked and secured for the multi-day journey from Dutch Harbor to the fishing grounds north of St. Paul Island.

The latest fatal sinking was the Scandies Rose, which took on ice before going down Dec. 31, 2019, in the Gulf of Alaska, killing five crew.

The loss of the Scandies Rose hit Casto hard. This was a sister ship to the vessel he once skippered, and he had an intimate knowledge of what he considered to be its formidable capabilities.

In 2020, Casto contributed one of his pots for the first in a series of Coast Guard experiments to learn more about the weight that can be added by freezing spray. Set on an icebreaker and sprayed with a hose for 72 hours, Casto’s pot more than tripled its weight.

Aboard the Pinnacle, that kind of ice may accumulate on a few pots most exposed to the sea. But Casto hoped the tarps would help keep ice from penetrating deep into the core of the stack. By the morning of Jan. 16, as the Pinnacle pulled away from the dock, the pots were stacked up to four high, stair-stepping from the deck.

A short distance from land, Casto left the helm, exited a nearby door, and walked onto a narrow, high catwalk for a brief ritual with which he begins each crab season.

He asked God to look after his crew and bring them home safely to their loved ones. Then he threw a mix of coins — pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters — over his right shoulder and into the sea.

“I don’t know why I do it that way,” Casto said. “I like to cover all my bases.”

CHAPTER TWO

Northward

Casto took a circuitous route from Unalaska to the Bering Sea winter snow crab harvest. He wanted to dodge, as much as possible, the freezing spray unleashed by strong, cold winds.

He tacked to the north to travel in calmer waters found close by the ice pack that pushed in from the Arctic. He then veered to the northwest to reach, on Jan. 18, waters off St. Matthew Island where he would prospect for crab.

This trip had taken more than two days, and Casto was eager to launch the first pots overboard.

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“We’re going to start slinging steel,” Casto announced to the crew, who layered up in sweatshirts and jackets and headed on deck.

The Pinnacle this winter had a 209,000-pound quota, a little more than half a boatload. That was a big cut from last year’s haul that took five trips to reach the quota.

The hunt for this crab would not be easy.

The Pinnacle often crawled through the Bering Sea at speeds of less than 5 mph to minimize the amount of spray that would freeze to the vessel.

Still, seawater kept forming ice on the boat.

“Oh boy. This is brutal,” said first mate Eben Brown as yet another wave broke over the bow during a late-night shift at the helm when the boat faced 15-foot seas, 35-mph winds and temperatures below 20 degrees.

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Crewman Jerret Kummer removes a tarp from a stack of crab pots aboard the Pinnacle on Jan. 18 in the Bering Sea southwest of St. Matthew Island. The tarp, which was brand new at the beginning of the voyage three days prior, keeps freezing spray from forming ice within the stack of crab pots. Ice buildup can add significant weight to a boat, changing its stability and increasing the risk of capsizing.

The spray frosted the boat with a thickening white glaze that wrapped around railings, coated decks and slickened ladders. Thousands of pounds of unwanted ice. One chunk fell off a crane and crashed to the deck. Nobody was nearby, but it was an unnerving sight.

“Holy shit,” Casto said.

The crew repeatedly cleared ice to improve the safety of workspaces, then, on one gray afternoon, gathered on the bow to unleash a broader attack.

They were joined by Dave Lethin, who owns part of the Pinnacle, and his stepdaughter, 27-year-old Maddie Smotherman. Lethin operates the Aleutian Ballad, a former crabber, as a tour boat in the Southeast Alaska town of Ketchikan. Smotherman, who assists in that enterprise, was fulfilling a bucket list dream of joining a crab harvest in the Bering Sea.

For several hours, everyone railed away with plastic headed mallets, sledgehammers and a crowbar. By far the most effective tools were two more recent acquisitions — a pair of chattering electric jack hammers, which could drill into hard blue ice that in some places was more than a foot thick.

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Crewman Jack Bunnell, left, uses a jackhammer to clear ice from the bow of the Pinnacle, as his fellow crewman Dan Jacobson shovels the ice chunks overboard on Jan. 19.

They shoveled the loose ice into totes and dumped them overboard. The removal of many tons of ice put Lethin in a buoyant mood.

“We have got a heck of an ice party here. I think it’s time to get out the margaritas,” he said.

In the galley, the crew settled for coffee, Gatorade and bottled water.

Their harvest started on the evening of Jan. 19, when the first 11 pots of the winter season came aboard.

Deckhand Jack Bunnell used a grappler to snag a floating buoy line, which he then threaded into a hydraulic winch that provided the power to lift the pots up from some 400 feet of water.

But these pots were outfitted with “trigger” openings designed to keep out most crab and allow the entry of Pacific cod, fat-bellied gray fish, many of which weigh 15 to 20 pounds. Some cod flopped about as they got tossed in totes. Others lay still, done in by pressure changes that caused their stomachs to be pushed out of their mouths during the rapid ascent.

Aboard the Pinnacle, the cod are used for bait. Two, trussed onto hooks, hung in each pot sent down to the sea bottom, where their carcasses would be picked to the bone by snow crab.

A habitat disrupted

Crab bait is an inglorious end for cod that, when swimming free in the Bering Sea, are predators — not prey — of the snow crab.

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Cod and crab fill a sorting table on Jan. 25 aboard the Pinnacle in the Bering Sea southwest of St. Matthew Island. Cod are used as bait for the crab, but they are also predators to the small crab, and a possible factor in the decline of the Bering Sea snow crab stock.

And, in tracking the fate of the snow crab, marine biologists have taken a big interest in cod. In recent years, they have found, through dissections of cod bellies, that these fish appear to have eaten a lot more snow crab. They cite this shift in the cod’s diet as likely playing a significant role in the dramatic downturn of the snow crab populations.

The cod’s ability to find all these snow crab is linked to the retreat of the winter ice as the ocean went through a period of rapid warming.

The 2018 Bering Sea ice cover was at the lowest point in 5,500 years, according to a study led by U.S. Geological Survey geologist Miriam Jones published in 2021 in Science Advances. In a feat of scientific sleuthing, Jones and her colleagues analyzed two oxygen isotopes contained in a peat bog core sample pulled that year from a remote island. They used this information to reconstruct the winter ice through the millennia.

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Jones said that the Bering Sea ice is sensitive to the release of carbon dioxide emissions by human activities, and that modeling indicates it could be lost entirely by 2070 or 2090, depending on how fast this pollution concentrates in the atmosphere.

The sea ice is crucial to the formation of a bottom layer of water at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit that is favored by the snow crab but forms a kind of thermal barrier that fends off the cod. This cold pool typically covered 30-80% of the Bering Sea in the late 20th century, according to survey records that date back to 1982.

In the summer of 2018, the first of the two years of extreme warming, the cold pool covered just 2% of that sea bottom, according to Lyle Britt, a Seattle-based federal marine biologist. Last summer, even after a modest boost in the winter ice pack, the cold pool had expanded only to about 12%.

The massive contraction of the cold pool made the snow crab much more vulnerable to cod and other predators.

“The cold-water habitat that protects the snow crab is basically breaking down,” said Erin Fedewa, a Kodiak-based federal biologist.

But Fedewa and other shellfish biologists still are struggling to understand all the factors that led to a stunning implosion of the snow crab stocks.

They measure these stocks with a survey system that returns to the same Bering Sea coordinates each summer to drop a sampling net to catch crab and other species.

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The crew of the Pinnacle unload a crab pot on Jan. 24. Each pot is large enough to hold over 1,000 crab, but catches of that size are no longer common.

In the warm year of 2018, the survey showed a big group of young crab that would hopefully mature to support the harvests.

In 2019, the second year of the strong warming, surveys found the crab population declined sharply.

Annual summer surveys of the snow crab by Fedewa and other federal scientists were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When they resumed last summer, biologists found “every size of snow crab was either missing, or in way smaller numbers than we had ever seen before,” Fedewa said.

The biggest drop was in immature females’ populations, which were down more than 99% compared to two years earlier.

Overall, population models indicate that between the 2019 and 2021 surveys, at least 1.8 billion snow crab vanished, according to Ben Daly, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Some of these may have moved into deeper, colder waters outside the survey area. But biologists say the evidence points to a massive die-off from increased predation, an upsurge in disease and other impacts — not yet fully understood — of sea warming.

Shellfish biologists are hoping the 2022 summer survey will yield more clues about their demise.

“What happened to the crab? That’s the question everyone is trying to answer,” said biologist Miranda Westphal, also with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

CHAPTER THREE

A malfunction on deck

On the morning of Jan. 20, engineer Mike Grant stood at a control panel near the Pinnacle’s bow, manipulating five levers that normally make the main crane jog and the large boom move like a nimble arm.

But something was wrong. The crane was sluggish, then seized up altogether as it performed the essential task of moving pots across the deck.

The malfunction put the Pinnacle’s harvest on hold, just two days after it got underway.

Things go awry on fishing boats. Indeed, equipment failures of all kinds are standard fare on the “Deadliest Catch” reality series that features the Alaska crab fleet. But the crew of the Pinnacle took pride in extensive maintenance work to ensure that such things don’t happen.

Grant inspected a line connected to the knuckle of the crane. It was a milky white, a sign that water had leaked into the hydraulic fluid. He checked a tank that held the fluid, and it, too, was discolored.

This was a major problem, which if not fixed could disable all the deck equipment run by hydraulics and force an early retreat back to port.

Casto came down from the wheelhouse, and joined Grant and other crew to troubleshoot the leak.

Amid the bitter cold wind on the bow, a hydraulic line snaking up a second smaller crane had chafed and cracked, sucking in water.

That line was replaced, and clean fluid was put into the tank.

“We’ll make it work,” Casto said. And they did.

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Stephen Jamieson tries to identify the source of a problem with the hydraulic system on Jan. 20.

By nightfall, after a lot of flushing, the two cranes could resume operations, and the crew returned to the harvest.

Up in the wheelhouse, Casto studied charts and reviewed notes and maps that detailed his recent years crabbing in this northern Bering Sea area. He also used the radio to get the latest info on the catch rates of his brother, Glenn Casto, skipper of the Fierce Allegiance crabbing nearby.

Using all this intelligence, Casto was able to find narrow pockets of crab in muddy patches of the sea bottom. These areas were much smaller than in years past. Early on, some pots had less than 100 crab in them — far below the 300 to 400 he hoped to average.

“Once you get outside the box this year, it feels like you don’t get anything — it’s either good or bad,” Casto said.

On deck, the harvest unfolded in difficult conditions both for the crew and the crab. With wind chills, temperatures feel like 40 and even 50 degrees below Fahrenheit, and ice kept building up.

As the pots came aboard, many of the crab were slow moving, their legs brittle from the cold as they got shaken — with the aid of a hydraulic launcher — onto a sorting table.

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The crew of the Pinnacle sort snow crab on the morning of Jan. 20. Snow crab, Chionoecetes opilio, is related to the tanner crab, Chionoecetes bairdi, and both are found in the Bering Sea.

The crew worked quickly to separate out the keepers from those that were returned to the sea.

Casto prides himself on finding “clean crab” where the vast majority are keepers. On one occasion, the pots came up filled with crab that didn’t make the grade, and went overboard as discards largely because they lacked size or were unsightly.

“We’re fishing on the boneyard,” Casto said. He told the crew to pick up those pots so they could be set somewhere else.

A wasteful period

Biologists are unsure just how many discarded crab end up dying from the rigors of their trip to the surface. They assume a 30% mortality rate, and a higher toll in colder weather.

To keep discards and mortality to a minimum, Casto has modified his pots, installing patches of larger mesh so that more of the small crabs can escape while still underwater. The Pinnacle also has a stainless steel chute that sends the rejected crab sliding quickly back overboard. That replaces a system still used by some boats that stacks the discards in totes, where they may spend more time out of the water and be more at risk of bruising.

Casto’s concerns about discards also prompted him to stop crabbing in the south, where he fished for decades.

Beginning in 2017, discard rates started a steady rise. Casto kept searching in the southern Bering Sea for areas he could catch crab without sending so many back overboard. In 2018, he decided he had to head north and find fresh areas to harvest.

Many boats continued to crab in the southern zone. Some skippers brought on board pots stuffed with crab, then sent lots of them back into the sea because they were small, or were older, with dark, discolored shells and legs. Most would have been legal to retain, and fine to eat. But they were not preferred by processors and their customers seeking to market bigger crab with unblemished shells.

“They were pulling pots with 900 crabs in them, but they were only keeping 200 or 300. And they kept doing that,” Casto said. “I didn’t partake in that.”

Much of the fleet stayed in the south, including many smaller boats less equipped to make the longer trip north. Discards continued to climb, peaking in the 2020 winter-spring season, when biologists estimate more than 10 million pounds of crab sent overboard died in a harvest that retained 34 million pounds.

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That discard rate was nearly six times higher than in 2013, according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimate based on information provided by onboard observers that sample part of the catch.

Then in the winter of 2021, crews in the southern harvest grounds found the crab had largely disappeared.

Jake Anderson, the skipper of the Saga and a star on “Deadliest Catch,” said he had been pulling up pots full of crab, “then nothing last year, absolutely nothing.”

So the Saga, along with most of the other boats in the fleet, headed north, including many captains of small boats that had earlier balked at venturing to these more distant harvest grounds.

By the time the 2021 season closed, more than 90% of the snow crab was caught in the north, and discards had dropped back almost to 2013 levels.

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Captain Jake Anderson stands next to his boat Saga on Jan. 12 in Dutch Harbor. Behind are his crew members Mac White and Joe Gomez.

Casto thinks that shift should have come a lot sooner.

“Why did people stay down there? … We were our own worst enemy.”

A long night

Deckhand Dan Jacobson catnapped while sitting upright on a bench by the galley table.

Engineer Mike Grant reached into a cupboard for Advil to ease his back pain and reduce the swelling in his hands.

Another crewman, Stephen Jamieson, wrapped tape around the cracked skin of his fingertips.

“I want to go back to bed,” said Jamieson, who had just finished a four-hour sleep break.

Instead, the crew assembled in a narrow room filled with rain gear and boots propped upside down on dryers. They suited up, then exited through a hatch to another cold stretch of work in a final push to bring aboard crab.

It was Jan. 26, just before midnight. They had been working 20-hour shifts through a difficult harvest they had hoped would wrap up in five days but instead had taken nearly twice as long as they struggled to find the crab.

Meals came at nearly any hour of the day — whenever someone had the time and energy to cook. On a few occasions, the crew dined on their catch — grilled cod salvaged from the bait bin, and omelets filled with fresh-picked crab.

Mostly, they ate meat. Sausages, burgers, chicken breasts, steaks and, on this evening, plates of ribs that Jamieson coupled with a cup of coffee before heading out on deck in what would be a final overnight push.

During their second week out, the crabbing improved substantially. The sea lay down in days that ended in spectacular pink sunsets. But for the crew’s last stint on deck, the wind once again picked up and the water grew rough.

As pots came aboard, they got stacked on deck by the main crane for the trip back to port.

Jamieson and two crewmates made dozens of climbs up and down the growing mountain of steel, guiding each pot in place, then tying it down as the boat pitched back and forth. They made this work look routine. But one bad move, and they could be slammed by a dangling pot.

“You just have to be ready to jump out of the way. It’s like second nature after all these years,” said Jamieson, a 16-year veteran of the boat.

Each time Jamieson got off the stack, he would join other crew members to sort through the crab brought up through the long night.

By 9 the next morning, as a crescent moon hung in the sky, all the pots were on board and the last of the crab was stowed below deck in the seawater tanks.

In the wheelhouse, Casto flipped on the speaker to talk to the crew.

“Well done. Game, set, match,” he said.

The crew went inside, retiring to their bunks for a long, hard-earned sleep.

Casto looked out over a now quiet deck.

The Pinnacle headed south to deliver the crab to Seattle-based Trident Seafoods’ processing plant on the Pribilof Island of St. Paul.

The route to St. Paul took the Pinnacle east of the Zhemchug Canyon, an undersea gorge — deeper than the Grand Canyon — that drops from the southern Bering Sea shelf to the depths of the Aleutian Basin.

Casto in years past had found some of the best crabbing of his career around the edges of the canyon, sometimes dropping pots to deeper slopes, 840 feet down.

But as the warming took hold, crab grew scarce in the Zhemchug and in other once-rich harvest areas.

“Where there used to be hundreds of miles of crab, they’re not there,” Casto said. “What am I going to tell my grandchildren — that there used to be crab all over the Bering Sea?”

Closer to St. Paul, the darkness surrounding the Pinnacle was pierced by the lights of other boats. This was another place where crab were once abundant.

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The crew of the Pinnacle set a crab pot on the launcher on Jan. 25. The launcher secures the 900-pound pot while it is being rigged, and also tips it overboard.

He hoped the area could be left alone to recover. Checking his computer screen, Casto was not happy to find seven bottom trawlers, which tow nets through the sea to bring in yellowfin sole and other fish.

The trawler ‘hairball’

The trawlers have become a flash point in an often emotional debate about the fate of the snow crab.

The trawlers bring up crab in their nets; federal regulation requires the crab to be tossed back in, but most die. The trawlers also have gear that enables the front of the net to roll along the bottom, which also can kill crab.

Other trawl vessels may harm crab as they tow much larger nets to catch pollock. Though this gear is rigged to catch fish as they school in midwater, the pollock also are found down low.

One fleet of pollock boats has some portion of the nets touching the bottom about 40% of the time. Another fleet that processes at sea touches bottom some 80% of the time, according to estimates developed by federal fishery researchers.

“It’s kind of a hairball,” said Ben Daly, an Alaska Fish and Game research biologist. “The crab numbers coming up in the nets are very low. But that doesn’t mean that the nets are not dragging around and crushing crab and disturbing habitat.”

Daly and other shellfish biologists have not tagged the trawlers’ catch of snow crab as a major cause of their decline. But now any such deaths caused by fishing fleets have greater consequence. “When a population is stressed, dying at such a high rate, it is more important than ever to reduce fishery-induced mortality,” Daly said.

Bottom-trawl industry officials say that through the years, they have modified their gear and changed fishing practices to reduce the impacts on snow crab.

They also push back at the crab fleet’s conservation record, which includes discarding snow crab that don’t meet the market size or have too many cosmetic imperfections. They note that during the past half-decade, the crab fleets’ discards are estimated to have killed far more crab than those that died from getting scooped up in trawl nets.

From 2010 to 2021, crabbers were estimated to have killed more than 60.8 million pounds of snow crab through discards. During that time period, the bottom trawlers were estimated to have killed less than 3 million pounds of snow crab through discards, according to an Alaska Fish and Game analysis based on information from state observers monitoring catches on some crab boats and federal observers on trawl boats.

“We really do everything we can to avoid these crab,” said TJ Durnan, captain of the Alaska Spirit, a Washington-based boat that fishes for flatfish in the Bering Sea.

Casto thinks the trawlers need to do more. They should agree to broader conservation areas where bottom trawling is not allowed.

“We all need to work together to figure out what’s going on. If we get shut down next year, are they just going to keep fishing and killing crab?” he said.

Reaching port

The Pinnacle pulled into St. Paul shortly before dawn Jan. 29.

Loose circles of ice floated in harbor, and the hull broke through a skim of shore ice as the crew tied the boat to the Trident Seafoods dock.

With the harvest over, Casto and his crew’s battle with the ice had come to an end. He was ready to reclaim the ice as his friend to bring back the cold-water conditions that could restore the snow crab populations.

Casto hoped the full ice pack would push all the way down to St. Paul, then stay put for a long freeze.

Still, he worried about the safety of other crabbers who had yet to get their quotas, some of whom were moored off the island, bobbing in the swells as they waited for a break in the weather to head north into the ice.

Casto’s cellphone rang. It was a call from one of those crabbers, Steve Davidson, the captain of the Billikin.

He wanted to borrow one of the electric jack hammers the Pinnacle crew used to bust ice.

Casto was happy to make the loan.

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From left, the fishing boats Billikin, Kari Marie, and Silver Spray wait out a storm in the lee of St. Paul Island on Jan. 30. The Pribilof Islands, which include St. Paul and nearby St. George, are located in the middle of the Alaskan side of the Bering Sea, 200 miles away from any other land mass.

Epilogue

On Jan. 31, the Pinnacle left St. Paul for the long voyage back to Seattle.

During the second week in February, the ice edge made it down to St. Paul, and extended across a nearly 600-mile swath of sea stretching from the Bering Strait to the Pribilofs.

That raised hopes of another big ice year akin to 2012, when the pack lingered around St. Paul for several months before melting in April.

But this year, the ice has been on a kind of roller coaster ride.

Within a week after reaching St. Paul, strong winds from the south began pushing the ice back north, and eventually shrank the pack more than 20%.

Then the winds turned around to blow from the northeast. The ice stormed back south, and by late March wrapped the island of St. Paul and pushed toward the neighboring island of St. George.

That ice caused more obstacles for crabbers still trying to catch small quotas in a slow-moving harvest season that, as of the April 1, was still underway.

Shellfish biologists expect that it will take a string of good ice years for the snow crab to rebound.

This year may be a start.

Phyllis Stabeno, a federal oceanographer in Seattle who studies the ice, predicts the pack in the northern Bering Sea will leave behind cold summer bottom temperatures: good news for the next generation of snow crab.

In the southern Bering Sea, the forecast is less promising. Much of the ice that arrived in March is thin, and the crabs’ cold pool refuge is likely to be modest.

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