Deaths Of 6 Illustrate Risks Of Crabbing

Alaska authorities have released the names of the six Seattle-area men who died after their vessel capsized Sunday in the Bering Sea while fishing for crab - considered a risky occupation in one of the most perilous places in the country.

"It's a tough environment, the Bering Sea in winter," said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crabbers Coalition. "Fishing on deck in the Bering Sea is not a place for kids."

Although there have been many safety improvements in the crab-fishing industry in the past four or five years, "you really can go only so far" to overcome the Bering Sea's huge waves and cold temperatures this time of year, Thomson said.

He thinks deaths occur because of the way the industry is administered by the state of Alaska with oversight by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

"It's an old-style race for the fishery," Thomson said, with crews racing to catch a limit, unload it and return for more before the short fishery expires.

"They go for broke. It pushes the crews and the boats to the limit."

The crew members of the capsized Northwest Mariner were identified as Capt. Jim Foster, 37, of Seattle; Larry Johnston, 36, of Bellevue; Bruce Ford, 38, of Edmonds; Rob Olsen, 26, of Seattle; Bob Peterson, 35, of Seattle; and Troy Collins, 30, of Everett.

Last night the Alaska State Troopers in Anchorage said it was not known which two were found dead in a life raft and which four victims were missing.

The two bodies were still aboard the Alaska Trojan, another crabbing vessel, which was en route to St. Paul, Alaska, last night. The crew of the Alaska Trojan found the two in the raft, said Steve Wilhelmi, spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers.

Yesterday, the Coast Guard suspended the search for the others' bodies. Petty Officer Anthony Palmer said there had been winds recorded at 40-plus knots and 20-foot seas.

The Coast Guard was still investigating the cause of the capsizing. Palmer said the vessel could have taken on water or been hit by a heavy wave, or its load may have shifted.

The 106-foot Northwest Mariner left St. Paul on Saturday, a day before it capsized 140 miles north of the community, 1,100 miles west of Anchorage.

The crew of the Alaska Trojan was unable to revive the two who had managed to get aboard the raft, officials said.

The Coast Guard said a person could survive for only six to 15 minutes in water as cold as it was Sunday, about 34 degrees.

In recent history, the greatest loss of life among crabbers occurred Feb. 14, 1983, when 14 men from Anacortes on two ships, the Americus and the Altair, died when the vessels capsized in the Bering Sea.

A lengthy Coast Guard investigation determined that the boats were overloaded and that crab and fuel tanks were improperly loaded, leading to instability on the 124-foot vessels.

More recently, on other crabbers, six died on the St. George in January 1992, five disappeared aboard the Nettie H on Sept. 17, 1993, and five were lost Oct. 27, 1994, on the Fierce Competitor, according to the Coast Guard's Juneau office.

Thomson thinks the crab fishery should be divided on an allotment basis, allowing so much crab for each boat based on past catch records. "It would be much safer," he said.

An allotment system is going to be used for the halibut and sablefish seasons starting this year, he added.

The unusually high price of crab this season, $2.25 per pound at the dock, may have added to the fishing frenzy, Thomson said, in which 275 boats race to catch their share of 60 million pounds of crab.

"That's ($135 million) a lot of money," he said.

Thomson said the owner of the Northwest Mariner, Kevin Kaldestad of Seattle, has a history of keeping his boats well-maintained and his crews trained. Kaldestad is a member of the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners Association, an industry group that pushes for safety requirements, Thomson said.