It's less deadly than it was, but a job in the commercial crab fishing industry is still one of the most dangerous jobs around. Why would anyone want to work in some of the world's worst weather with a high likelihood of injury, cramped quarters and grueling physical labor?
Cash. Lots and lots of cash.
Crabbers earn an annual salary of anywhere from about $25,000 for a greenhorn to $100,000 for an experienced crab fisher, depending on experience and a successful fishing season.
If you've ever seen the TV show "Deadliest Catch," you know the brutal routine of a crabber's life. When the pressure is on, you are expected to stay up around the clock. Lifting king crab traps, separating the bycatch, keeping the ship clean, maintaining the equipment, and staying on the good side of the crew and captain is not an easy way to make a living.
Once you've done all that, you repair whatever the weather has broken on the ship, cook meals for your crew members, clean the equipment and foul weather gear, and assist the captain in whatever he needs, from plotting a course to motivating the crew. When you're aboard a crab fishing boat, you're always on, doing whatever is needed to ensure you and your friends return with a full quota of crab and all your body parts intact and healthy.
There are no minimum education requirements for a crabber. Plenty of highly successful crab fishermen have only a GED or less. The ability to work hard and tolerate long hours count far more toward your success in this career than any certificate. That said, if you have mechanical skills or boat or radio repair qualifications, you'll be at a premium and have an advantage when negotiating salary.
Because the season for each species of crab is brief, a mere few weeks, most captains and crews go after more than one species of crab per year, using crab pots modified for each species. The general labor required is about the same.
As North Americans increasingly avoid red meat, they turn to seafood, not only for low-fat nutrition but also for flavor. The flavor of American crab is justifiably world-famous. This fuels a demand that has caused the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to introduce quotas, capping the number of crabs of each species that may be caught each year. The result has been to ensure that species won't be fished to extinction and also to make the process of crabbing somewhat less life-threatening, as there is nothing to be gained by sailing into a storm to reel in a few more pots of crab and get ahead of the competition. The market prices of some kinds of crab have more than doubled over the past decade, which makes crab fishing a lucrative endeavor that attracts a tough crowd of ambitious, hard workers.
Years of Experience and Salary
Crab boat jobs pay a good salary plus a share of the catch, which can be substantial. Now that Alaska operates on a quota system, a crab fisherman salary can be calculated before the season starts.
The average hunting or fishing worker earns $28,530 per year. The average crabber, however, earns several times that in a much shorter period. Greenhorns or new crabbers get the worst of it, but every career has to start somewhere. After one season as the butt of every crew joke and the doer of every crappy job, you're no longer a greenhorn and can double your salary and make fun of the new kid alongside the rest of the crew.
Don't compare that to the Deadliest Catch income. The celebrity sea captains of that TV show can easily rake in six figures over the course of a year working several different types of crab seasons, not to mention what they make from the show. The Alaska Fishing Employment Center estimates that experienced deckhands can earn up to $15,000 per month in season or $100,000 a year. The captain finances the entire cost of the expedition and takes the largest risk in a bad season. Accordingly, the captain receives the largest share of the profits.
Job Growth Trend
The entire field is expected to grow by 11 percent, significantly faster than average, although the crab fishery quotas put a limit on the number of boats and crab pots that can go out in a given year. Still, demand is strong and turnover high because the job is so physically grueling, so there is plenty of opportunity for would-be crab fishermen.