On a brisk and breezy afternoon, the stillness of the Bering Sea ice was broken up by the sounds of commercial crabbers, hard at work removing icy buildup from their crab pot openings.
“We’re about four miles west of the Cape Nome. We’re currently set about 30 feet,” Greg Mendez explained.
It’s part-time job for him, one that makes good money.
“The market at the beginning of the year was $7.25. This time of year it drops to $6 per pound, so if you have a lot of crab that’s really good,” Mendez laughed.
During the Iditarod, he sees a demand from people in Nome wanting fresh-caught crab and he’s happy to provide.
“This is a good-sized crab. It has barnacles on it, but it’s still a good, eatable, sellable crab,” he said, holding out a spidery crustacean. “This is probably a three-pounder.”
Most of the commercial crab, like Mendez’s, ends up at the Norton Sound Seafood Center in Nome.
“We’re seeing delivery of 1,000 to 2,000 pounds a day from fishermen, which is pretty impressive,” said Tyler Rhodes, the chief operating officer for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC).
The crab is sold live, which means a higher price and better payday for fishermen.
“It’s a very good fishery, especially this time of year, for residents in rural, western Alaska,” Rhodes said. “It’s harder to make an income in the winter. There’s less going on, so this winter fishery has been a big help for fishermen.”
A majority of the red king crab is caught in the summer, but Rhodes said that over the past few years, the winter fishery has brought in up to 100,000 pounds. Most gets shipped to Anchorage or markets overseas, but people who visit Nome could find fresh-caught crab at the fish market.
Mickey Zirkle, mother of Iditarod musher Aliy Zirkle, said king crab is a must-have for their family.
“We put it on newspaper after it’s cooked, and sit there with bread and salad and crab and melted butter and eat until we can’t eat anymore,” she laughed. “I won’t eat king crab any place other than Nome.”
NSEDC reports the red king crab fishery is the largest in the Norton Sound. In 2016, fishermen hauled in more than 475,000 pounds, valued at $3.1 million.
Back out on the ice, Mendez and his partner check four out of their seven pots.
“They [the crabs] move around,” he explained. “You have to move the pots with them.”
He said the pots “needed to soak a little longer,” because they only came away with four crabs and a couple dozen starfish.
“Pretty nice, average weight of what we catch out here,” he said, holding up two three-pounders. “We don’t have extremely big holes, but it will be some good dinner.”