Today marks the opener for the 2020 red king crab fishing season. The beginning of the king crab season is always a busy time in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, with the arrival of numerous fishermen from all over the country, as well as film and production crews with the widely known Discovery Channel television series Deadliest Catch.
Despite the influx of fishermen and television crews, this season was a little quieter than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic and local mitigation protocol that required most fishermen to quarantine for two weeks.
Blake Smithmeyer, the greenhorn on the Summer Bay—a boat made famous on Deadliest Catch by its iconic captain, "Wild" Bill—is a newcomer to the series and to commercial fishing.
Smithmeyer said he was working as a chef at a restaurant in Tacoma, Washington, before his friend, Landon Cheney—the engineer on the Summer Bay—received the call that ended up bringing Smithmeyer to Dutch Harbor.
"One of their guys on the last [Summer Bay] crew ended up quitting two weeks before they were about to go out," said Smithmeyer. "And I was next to [Cheney] when he got the phone call. So I was like, 'I'll go.' And two weeks later, here I am."
Smithmeyer is clearly the new guy on the boat and in the pot yard where crewmates and even fishermen from other boats joined in in hassling him. But Smithmeyer said he's using his time as a greenhorn to his advantage, learning as much as he can, especially during his quarantine, before the season officially began.
"[I've spent] a lot of time cleaning, a lot of time just working, getting to know everything that I was going to be doing, shutting up and listening to what [the crew was] saying so I knew what to do," said Smithmeyer.
Smithmeyer said he flew up to Anchorage and from there he and the crew went to Homer, where they worked on the boat before coming to Dutch Harbor. When I asked him how long he'd quarantined for, his math didn't quite add up, but maybe that can be chalked up to a rookie mistake—he is a greenhorn, after all.
"Four or five [days] with the flight, two days in Homer working on the boat, and then four days to come here," said Smithmeyer.
According to Smithmeyer, he'd been quarantined for 13 or 14 days. But as I quickly added up the numbers he gave me in my head, I only counted 11 days—I gave him a quizzical look, asked him again how many days he had quarantined, and waited.
"Help," Smithmeyer said, looking for answers from other crew members as he realized his mistake. "I'm new, help."
Despite the discrepancy, Smithmeyer said the island's two-week quarantine mandate was communicated clearly to the crew.
"Our captain and the production company—they told us everything we needed to do," explained Smithmeyer. "They spelled it out very well and talked to us on the phone about how we had to quarantine and make sure not to go out, and make sure that if we even left our boat, to have a mask on to protect the other boats from getting sick."
Mason Twyman on the F/V Saga—who came up to the island on Sept. 22—said his captain also stressed the importance of observing the two-week quarantine.
"He said, 'Hey, we've got to do the quarantine. We've got to do it right because if we don't, there's a hefty fine, and we can get shut down, the whole boat,'" said Twyman. "'The whole business can get shut down right at the start.'"
Twyman said the quarantine period has been a great opportunity for "sprucing the boat up" and making sure everything is in order. And Landon Cheney on the Summer Bay echoed Twyman's appreciation for the extra time to tighten things up before heading out to fish.
Cheney also said that it's been a good opportunity to develop positive companionship among the crew.
"For me personally, [the quarantine] has been really good," said Cheney. "It's allowed some of the new guys on the boat to get plugged in with the camaraderie that we like to have on the Summer Bay. That's really important for us. We like to gas each other up on the boat and be positive."
According to Twyman, he and his crew had been tested for COVID-19 after their quarantine to ensure that they weren't contagious. Discovery production employees did not confirm that protocols, such as quarantining or testing, are part of their official mitigation plans.
Cheney said he hopes their efforts in quarantining help keep the community safe and that after the season, the added precautions will help mitigate issues with fishermen leaving the island between or after seasons.
"After we work our butts off, I'm really hoping that it's not too complicated to go home and spend time with loved ones," said Cheney.