My initial entry on the FV Pinnacle was not one to inspire confidence in this reporter’s seamanship.
In the dark of a snowy January evening at the Aleutian Islands port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, I slipped. For a brief moment, I clung with both arms to a crane as my feet dangled over a narrow strip of water between the dock and the boat. Then crew member Dan Jacobson clung to me and helped me on board.
I was joining the crew of this crabber for a harvest of Alaskan snow crab, a species in precipitous decline following several years of extreme warming in the Bering Sea.
In the summer of 2019, as part of a project supported by the Pulitzer Center, I teamed up with Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman to report from northwest Alaska on the impacts of two successive winters of significantly reduced sea ice that had sent Pacific cod and other species from the southern Bering Sea surging north amid changes in the ecosystem.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be able to partner with Anchorage Daily News photojournalist Loren Holmes, and once again gain support from the Pulitzer Center, to explore what happens to snow crab.
Earlier in my career, I spent 11 years at the Anchorage Daily News, where one of my highlights was covering the seafood industry. In 1992, while working at the newspaper, I left for the first time on a snow crab boat – the Aleutian Mariner – and was grateful to have the opportunity to return to harvest three decades later at such a critical time in its history.
Dutch Harbor was our rendezvous point with the Pinnacle, which the crew had brought north from Seattle.
The first time we tried to depart from Anchorage, the flight was canceled due to bad weather. On our second attempt, we traveled nearly 800 miles to Dutch Harbor, only to turn overhead, then back to Anchorage due to heavy, low cloud cover. On the third try, visibility remained blurry. The wind picked up as we approached the airport and our plane’s nose swayed up and down. Our pilot adjusted the controls to level the plane, then pulled off a bouncy landing that elicited shouts of appreciation from me and the other passengers for some terrific flying skills.
We spent nearly two weeks aboard the Pinnacle heading for a northern area of the Bering Sea off St. Matthew Island, where skipper Mark Casto began harvesting. The effort took longer than expected, reflecting both the time it took to get to the best crabbing spots and the harsh January weather, which was much colder than 2018 and 2019.
As we traveled more than 200 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, we first encountered a few small white “cocktail” ice cubes, then passed through eight increasingly larger floes, with much larger chunks.
A more robust ice year could help revive snow crab and do good things for the Bering Sea ecosystem. But ice also threatened to blanket some of the main crabbing areas, and low temperatures and strong northeast winds caused freezing spray to blanket part of the boat.
Over many years of helping to report on Alaskan fisheries, I have written, again and again, about boats that have sunk after accumulating too much ice and losing stability. The Pinnacle is one of the largest boats in the fleet, and Casto is a veteran skipper and safety freak. Still, looking out the aft wheelhouse window and watching the waves crash over the bow could be a sobering sight.
“Hal, are you nervous?” Because I’m not nervous,” Casto said at one point. “When I’m nervous, that’s when you have to be nervous.”
As far as I know, this has never happened, and I have come to look forward to periodic work to remove the ice. Loren and I could participate; shoveling or wielding a plastic-headed mallet offered a welcome change of pace from my reporting efforts.
I really appreciated Loren’s dedication to this mission. He spent day after day photographing the harvest. He used plastic bags to protect his gear from the salt spray. He was also able to deploy a drone from the Pinnacle and land it twice on the bridge – quite the feat.