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After crabs in the Bering Sea disappeared, fishermen say they're facing bankruptcy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

*** The snow crab fishery in the Bering Sea will be closed this winter. That is a first under U.S. management, and it follows a catastrophic crash in the number of crabs there, nearly 90% between 2018 and 2021. Scientists think climate change plays an important role. This closing is especially hard on captains and crews who rely on snow crabs. Gabriel Prout and his family own a crabbing boat in Kodiak, Alaska. He joins us from there. Mr. Prout, thanks so much for being with us.

GABRIEL PROUT: You're welcome. Thanks for letting me be here.

SIMON: What's this closing going to do to you and your family?

PROUT: Yeah, the closure of the snow crab fishery for the first time in its history is going to be having a really devastating impact on me and my family. And it's going to have a huge impact on the fishery in general. We're really struggling to find a path forward here just going into the next year with the complete closure, trying to pay our bills and invoices, mortgage fees, insurance fees. The vessels themselves that go out to the Bering Sea are incredibly expensive to maintain and operate. So this closure for the first time ever, along with the second closure in a row for king crab, is really making it difficult to find a path forward here.

SIMON: This is your life, right?

PROUT: Yeah, it's my livelihood. I've grown up watching my dad fish out on the Bering Sea. He's been fishing out there for over 45 years. I went off to university, got a degree, but found myself called back to the sea. I work alongside my two brothers on deck. Our father is the skipper of the vessel, so it's in our blood, can't really get away from it. So seeing the crash of the snow crab, which no one expected, it's really, really hard to just put into words the impact...

SIMON: Yeah.

PROUT: ...That it's going to have on us.

SIMON: Forgive me, but what else can you do for money?

PROUT: There's not a lot of options. These boats are specifically designed to go out and catch the species of crab out in the ocean. Our moneymaker that pays our bills is the snow crab season. There's a couple other operations we can do. But when you take 60 vessels off the Bering Sea and tell them they're not going to be able to make any money, they're all going to be scrambling for those same very few opportunities...

SIMON: Yeah.

PROUT: ...That they can find.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Forgive me, Mr. Prout, but are you looking at bankruptcy?

PROUT: It's definitely on the table. Again, we bought into this fishery. My brothers and I, my father - we're second- and third-generation fishermen. We bought into the snow crab fishery when the stocks were high. We took out loans to buy into this fishery, get the fishing rights, and now we're still having to pay those loans that we borrowed against when there's no revenue to be had. So bankruptcy, seizures of vessels is very, very real right now...

SIMON: Yeah.

PROUT: ...And very much on the table.

SIMON: Your trade organization, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, is trying to get a disaster declaration. Would that be good? Would it be enough?

PROUT: Yeah. I'm a board member on the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. We've put a disaster declaration forward for the king crab season as well as the snow crab season. The problem with that is those fishery disasters typically takes years to process and get funds into the hands of the fishermen. By the time the funds finally do come around and get paid out to the fishermen who are affected by this, they very well may have already been forced into bankruptcy...

SIMON: Yeah.

PROUT: ...Been forced to sell out or just moved on completely. We need kind of a rapid relief program to fishermen, not something that takes years.

SIMON: Mr. Prout, scientists are convinced that warming waters played a big role in the crash of the crab population. And climate change is not disappearing. Is this a good business to be in?

PROUT: At the moment, it would not seem so. Warming waters do seem like they are playing some type of factor into the disappearance of snow crab. That's kind of the why behind where they've gone. As far as the how, we're not exactly sure. Scientists are still figuring that one out. They don't know if the warmer water has possibly forced the snow crab into deeper areas where the fleet does not fish. Or did the warming waters have something to do with predation by other predators for the snow crab? We're not exactly sure on that. Or did it introduce a new disease due to the little bit warmer temperatures?

SIMON: Given discouraging prospects, is this a business that you - well, let's put it this way. Do you have a backup plan?

PROUT: Right now, there's no particular backup plan. You kind of go into this all in, 100% invested. I think it's going to be a really difficult set of years coming up. And what we're really trying to focus on is figuring out the - more into the why, but also the how the snow crab disappeared. We want to prevent this from happening again. We want to do what we can to bring back that fishery and build a climate-resilient fishery as well, if that is even possible. So we're really looking at options at preserving what's left of the snow crab population by state-managed properties and federally regulated choices that the government can make to help us with this.

SIMON: Gabriel Prout, crab fisherman in Kodiak, Alaska, thank you so much. Good luck to you, sir.

PROUT: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFA MIST'S "KEEP ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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