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Alaska king crab fishery snared by Congress as season opener gets delayed by shutdown

Craig Medred
A Horizon container ship loading up in Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A Horizon container dock at the port of Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A Horizon container ship loading at Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Amaknak Island, seen from inside a WWII fortification. September 1, 2012
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WWII fortifications on Unalaska's Amaknak island. September 1, 2012
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WWII fortifications on Unalaska's Amaknak Island. September 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
WWII fortifications on Unalaska's Amaknak Island. September 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The city of Unalaska, Alaska. August 31, 2012
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Salmonberries on Unalaska's Amaknak Island. September 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Unalaska's Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ. August 31, 2012
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A sign in downtown Unalaska warns pedestrians of cliff-nesting eagles. September 1, 2012
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Unalaska's Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The view from Unalaska's Amaknak island. September 1, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Salmon running in a stream through downtown Unalaska, Alaska. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A stream thick with salmon runs through downtown Unalaska, Alaska. August 31, 2012
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A fishing boat returns to harbor in Unalaska. The city's port of Dutch Harbor is the largest fisheries port in the U.S., and a major shipping port. August 31, 2012
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The Deadliest Catch's F/V Northwestern, in the port of Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
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Commercial fishing boats in the port of Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
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Crab pots on the dock in Dutch Harbor. August 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

The Alaska fishermen made famous by the TV reality show "The Deadliest Catch'' were Monday caught in a deadly tangle of American politics, their fishing boats idle at the docks in Dutch Harbor as Democrats and Republicans squabbled 4,000 miles to the east in the nation's capital. 

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is set to open at noon Tuesday, but that largely isn't going to happen because of the ongoing budget battle and congressional showdown over Obamacare that’s behind the two-week-old federal government shutdown and furlough of 800,000 “non-essential” federal employees, including 16,000 in Alaska.

Among them were biologists working for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries in Alaska, which apportions 8.6 million pounds of crab catch among Alaska fishermen in what are called "individual fishing quotas'' or IFQs.

The crab catch limit is set by the state, but the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is in charge of the permits for fishermen and processors who deliver the catch.

NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger has appealed for some of the biologists to be put back to work in order to start dispersing the IFQs. But it’s not yet clear whether that will happen during the shutdown.

Peggy McLaughlin, the port director at Dutch Harbor International Port in Alaska’s Aleutian Chain, said Monday that “the word on the street'' was at least another four or five days before that might happen.

Officially, she said, there is no way of knowing. There aren't any Fisheries Service or NOAA officials in their offices to answer questions. Law enforcement officers with the Fisheries Service remain at work, however, as do IFQ technicians who are contracted by the government to keep track of the fish being landed from fisheries that already were open off Alaska’s coasts.

One technician said Monday she had no idea what NOAA could or would do to get the crab season underway.

"Everybody is still in limbo,'' McLaughlin said. "All they know is that they're late.''

Much has been made of the delay but fishermen are used to getting marooned in Dutch Harbor, just south of the turbulent Bering Strait. Usually, though, extreme weather keeps boats docked and delayed, and not health insurance political skirmishes.

Fishermen don't seem seem to be getting too antsy just yet, McLaughlin said. 

"It's fairly low key right now," she said. 

Everyone is continuing to prepare for the season as if it were starting on time, Tuesday.

Problems are not expected unless the delay drags on for days and days.

Delays in IFQ processing may actually benefit another fleet of crab fishermen already headed out to sea. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the Community Development Quota (CDQ) crab fisheries will open on schedule Tuesday.

The state, not the federal government, is in charge of those fisheries prosecuted by six fishing cooperatives representing 65 Western Alaska villages. The cooperatives are given about 11 percent of the crab catch-quota.

The allocation is intended to help pump cash into one of the most economically depressed areas in the nation.

Crab season’s delay might even yield a bit more cash for CDQ holders than they’d anticipated.

King crab is a highly valued commodity in Japan, and scarcity in the market in the early season could drive up prices.

A long delay in the season opening, however, could prove a disaster for many. Processors say crab shipments needs to be on boats to Japan by mid-November or risk missing a lucrative holiday market in that country.

Average wholesale prices for the prized red kings is expected to fetch higher-than-normal prices this year. A higher quota -- nearly 1 million more pounds to be caught than 2012's 7.8 million pounds -- and increasing Asian demand could push prices higher still. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com