Seattle photojournalist Karen Ducey | multimedia, news, and documentary photographer

STORIES: Bering Sea Crab

Crab fishing in the Bering Sea was one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. In the mid 1990's, when these photos were taken, seven out of every 1,500 crabbers died on the job each year; that was 70 times higher than the national average for workplace fatalities. If it weren’t for the potentially large financial jackpots (as high as U.S. $25,000 for a deckhand during a five-week season) no one would have ventured out to sea. But crabbers did. The lure of money and the sea is a powerful addiction.

Today the fishery has consolidated resulting in a much smaller fleet and diminished financial returns for a typical deckhand. The crab fishing quotas are also smaller so crabbers fish much shorter seasons. As a result fewer crewmen have died.

To read more check out Karen Ducey's gallery on the National Geographic website.

Please click on the "next" button below to see the photo gallery.

These photos were made during the winters between 1992 - 1996. All photographs and text are © Karen Ducey and protected under international and national copyright law. None of the photographs or text can be downloaded, printed, or distributed in any way without written permission of the photographer. None of the photographs or text on this website are considered within the public domain. None of the photographs can be manipulated or altered in any way.

Crewman Joe Hinton works on the stack on the fishing vessel
Crewman Jeff Newton braces as a wave splashes over the side of the crab fishing vessel
The fishing vessel
Steadying themselves on the pitching, water-sloshed deck, two crewmen from the Polar Lady move a sorting table loaded with Opilio crab. In January and February crabbers fish for “Opies” or snow crabs—smaller cousins of king crabs—with 700-pound (315.5-kilogram) crab pots. Even as the boats battle 30-foot (9-meter) waves and heavy gales the crew must hoist, stack, move, and empty pots. The work is tedious, and crabbers always run the risk of being hit suddenly by a swinging or falling crab pot.   © Karen Ducey
Aboard the deck of the F/V Big Valley, crewmen Eric Grumpke runs the hydrolics next to the crab coiler which bears a picture of Barbara Stanwyck, star of the television show that is the boat’s namesake, while the boat is in King Cove, Alaska preparing for the red king crab season on October 29, 1993. Grumpke drove the crane that shifted gear and equipment on deck. In the winter, arctic nights last 18 hours. The sun barely comes above the horizon before it begins its retreat back below the surface. Everyone's eyes adjust to the long winter nights, creating a glassy-eyed crew. The “Aleutian stare” is a common affliction everyone gets as a result of fatigue and being in this empty, gray world for indefinite periods of time. Heart failure killed Grumpke only 19 days after this picture was taken while he was driving the boat.   © Karen Ducey
Heaving sledgehammers, two crew members begin a frigid January morning in 1995 by smashing a coat of frozen sea spray from the bow of the Polar Lady during opilio crab season in the Bering Sea. An iced-over boat can become dangerously top-heavy in rough seas and roll over. After four or so hours of sleep deckhands rise, beat ice off the boat with baseball bats and sledgehammers, and begin fishing.    © Karen Ducey
Assistant skipper Jeff Morehouse guides the fishing vessel
After working for 24 hours straight, a crewman onboard the fishing vessel
Tugboats and a smaller boat break up the ice in the harbor of St. Paul Island in January and February of 1995. This harbor is where most of the fleet delivered opilio crab in the 1990's, including the boats in the back of this frame delivering to the Unisea processor.    © Karen Ducey
A processor halves a red king crab at the Unisea processing plant in Dutch Harbor, Alaska in October 1994.    © Karen Ducey
Dennis Scholl pears out of the fish hold after he iced it on the cod fishing boat
A fight breaks out in the Elbow Room in Unalaska, AK
A pot of red king crab is dumped onto the sorting table where the crew will begin sorting out the legal sized males, 6.5 inches or larger. Thos crab are then tossed into one of 3 large tanks below deck filled with seawater and kept alive until the boat returns to Dutch Harbor, AK where they will be processed.  On a pot this size which had about 60
Crewmen on the fishing vessel Northern Orion and their families reunite in Seattle after a season fishing for opilio crab in the Bering Sea.    © Karen Ducey