This 2,000-word excerpt from Pie in the Sky, with added emphasis, tells of the industry's first years, in the mid-1980s, from my own experiences with it, primarily as a photographer. The story near the start refers to my work as a guest aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, on a tour of the Alaska Fisheries Patrol.
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Filled as the Alaska! saga is with paradoxes, few chapters rival the circumstances behind America’s sudden domination of the planet’s most lucrative commercial fisheries, which only a handful of years earlier it effectively had shunned. Nearly every captain in the new American fleet of factory trawlers, sieving from the ocean the cheapest seafood on the planet, had formerly stood the helm of a Bering Sea crabber, harvesting the most expensive.
They'd grown wealthy from year after year of record King crab harvests - but all that abruptly ended in the winter of 1982-83, with sudden complete collapse of the resource, and subsequent emergency closure of the fishery. Teetering on the abyss, to a man they were pushed beyond humiliation through a last hope, heretofore largely ignored, clause in an international fisheries treaty, that gave them the right to convert their mighty crab boats into lowly net draggers, and form jay-vees, joint venture partnerships with foreign processors – which is to say, supplanting the Japanese fishing boats trawling for bottomfish in American waters, while delivering their catch to Japanese mother ships for processing.
Steady work, lower personal risk, bigger paychecks… Lickety-split, the proud crabbers, their boats’ financiers, and everybody else in their economic web, finally caught on to the true value of America’s North Pacific commercial fisheries habitats. In not one handful of years, a couple-dozen US-flagged factory trawlers, mostly converted oil industry support ships, had come to dominate an international fisheries industry serving markets for seafood that Americans basically did not eat.