Sea ice is encroaching unusually early on the central Bering Sea, threatening to grind Alaska's economically important snow crab fishery to a halt at the peak of the season, leaving crabbers facing major losses.
Earlier-than-expected ice is moving south over prime crabbing grounds, forcing boats away from their catch and putting millions of dollars of equipment in jeopardy.
These kind of "mother nature effects" are part of the fishing business everywhere, said Karen Gillis, the executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association.
But this fishery, which was expected to net 80 million pounds this year, hasn't seen a natural event like this in 20 years, she said, and it could have a devastating economic impact on crabbers and their families.
"We're talking about household incomes that are being severely impacted, households that don't have a lot of other income sources," Gillis said.
Crabbing boats are out retrieving their pots or sitting in Dutch Harbor rather than delivering their catch to the now iced-in Trident Seafoods processing plant on St. Paul, said Edward Poulson, an advisor for the Bering Sea Crabbers Association and longtime crabber.
"Every day the boat sits in town waiting to see if the weather is going to turn you're burning money," Poulson said.
If this goes on for much longer, he said, vessel owners will start sending their crews home.
There's another concern: the equipment already in the water.
Some 8,000 pots are in the water right now -- putting a total of more than $8 million worth of gear potentially in the ice's path, said Heather Fitch, an area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor.
The phone in National Weather Service ice forecaster Becki Legatt's Anchorage office has been ringing with calls -- 30 or 40 in the past few days -- from concerned crabbers who want to know where the ice is going to go.
"A lot of them are really concerned about their crab pots and where to drop them," Legatt said. "At $1,000 a pop you don't want to lose them."
Very cold temperatures and strong winds are pushing the ice south at the rate of 10-15 miles a day, according to the National Weather Service. A rate of 2-3 miles a day is normal. The ice itself has a maximum thickness of two feet.
The conditions are rare, but not unprecedented, scientists say.
Ice in this area of the Bering Sea is normal, just not this early, said Legatt.
"It's definitely impacted the fishing grounds," said Legatt.
It has also reached the place where most snow crab is processed, Seattle-based seafood giant Trident's massive St. Paul plant.
"We have to deliver a certain amount of our crab to St. Paul and with the way the ice is, you just can't get to it," Poulson said.
Calls to Trident company spokesman Joe Plesha were not immediately returned Wednesday.
But for the moment, Poulson said, crabbers are less concerned with getting out and fishing than with getting their gear out of the water.
The ice could reach St. George by the end of the week if weather patterns hold, Legatt said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News