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Dutch Harbor

By Charles P. Wohlforth

All Rights Reserved
Originally appeared in Alaska Magazine, November 1994.

Wind rucks up the Bering Sea like a giant boot kicking a rug across the floor. Toy boats go topsy turvy. On deck, men and women, made tiny by towering water, feverishly retrieve crab pots from the waves. The deadline to end this year’s 10-day red king crab season is here.

On the bridge of the Sourdough, Rick Williams, a 24-year veteran of these waters, makes a mental calculation. A lot of money is at stake in every hour of this $2 million-a-day fishery. But working his men on deck in these conditions could cost them their lives.

His mind clouded by a week virtually without sleep, Williams decides to fish on. It’s a routine decision. Crab fishermen in the Bering Sea gamble death for wealth every day. Fishing in these waters is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, killing more than 30 fishermen in a typical year.

But today it looks like a losing gamble, as a a huge wave washes across the back deck. Where the crew one moment man-handled a 1,000-pound crab pot, the next moment there is only water. And then, a clean deck. The crew is nowhere to be seen.

Williams waits. Long seconds pass. A minute. He thinks his crew has been swept overboard. And then they emerge from their hiding places, safe and unharmed. And they get back to work pulling pots.

"Any other time I would have said, ‘It isn’t worth getting somebody hurt,’" Williams says. But he faces a state-enforced deadline to stop fishing and get back to port through the storm. "You can’t take a $100,000 fine," he says.

The fishing deadline passes. Nearly 300 vessels turn toward port -- they have 24 hours to arrive at the dock -- as their exhausted crews drop into pitching bunks for their first extended sleep in days. Skippers broadcast the size of their catch, in code, to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor.

There, in a second floor office overlooking the water, biologists add up the numbers and take requests for extensions to the deadline to arrive in port. It will be slow going through high seas, a wind strong enough to knock a man off his feet and rain drops that seem to fall from five-gallon buckets.

The concern with deadlines, and the risks they create, is caused by the shortness of the season. Each hour of fishing is potentially worth thousands of dollars, so to cheat is tempting. The season is short because so many boats are involved, attracted by the multimillion-dollar prize.

"They kill a few people every year," says Rance Morrison, who runs the Dutch Harbor office. "It is a very dangerous lifestyle. Because of the amount of time they have, there's not much time to sleep. You’re working around a lot of heavy equipment. But unlike working on a construction site on a D-9, you don’t have a lot of protection. It’s like working in an earthquake."

This time, no one dies. The fleet brings in a good catch for a fairly good price — $3.90 a pound. As in the days of square rigged whalers, each crewman will collect a share of the earnings, typically 6 percent for a deck hand. Hands from top boats will celebrate paychecks of $20,000 or more. They will celebrate success and survival — another winning gamble.

Dutch Harbor is ready.

At the Unalaska Police Department, officers prepare for trouble.

"We get a lot of guys who want to really rip it up," says Sgt. Ross Nixon. Tall and fit in his uniform, Nixon drawls like John Wayne in the role of an Eagle Scout.

"They’ve been out there doing some pretty dangerous work and they want to blow off some steam. It’s the old wild west syndrome. It’s the end of the earth and people think they can do what they want."

Dutch Harbor is basically a large rock far out in some of the wildest, richest fishing grounds in the world. The industrial harbor, a suburb of the town of Unalaska, sits on an island in the Aleutian Archipelago. Civilization uses it as a last outpost in these wild waters.

In the lobby of the brand new, luxurious Grand Aleutian hotel, trim Japanese businessmen — fish buyers whose millions will buy the catch — wait for the fleet to arrive. Shipping containers stand ready at the pier; freighters plying the route from the U.S. West Coast to Japan stop here several times a week. The bars are stocked with liquor and the bank full of cash.

But so far, Sgt. Nixon’s radio is quiet. The bars are empty but for a crew of 300 Russian sailors stranded by circumstance in Dutch Harbor who keep refusing to leave various establishments. The Russians are drunk and, besides, don’t understand the requests to leave.

Indeed, most permanent residents of the town of 4,317 hardly note the crab fleet bearing down through the stormy night. Their community lives by the fishing industry, but doesn’t interact much with the fishermen or their wild lifestyle.

Flash Unalaska, the weekly volunteer news show on the community TV station, channel 8, doesn’t even mention the annual red king crab harvest. The two anchors this week — women from the volunteer rescue squad — sit at the table behind a plastic magic eight ball and report on the news that concerns the real community here.

The news: a rash of burglaries, a fisherman who hit another fisherman on the head with an iron pipe, a city council meeting cancelled due to a lack of a quorum, a pancake breakfast benefitting the rescue squad. While video of the breakfast plays, an emergency call comes in over the volunteers’ radios and they jump up from the news desk and run from the broom-closet-sized studio. The frenzied camera man asks me to fill in, but the firefighters return just in time — someone else was able to cover the call.

Now a piece plays in which a mother with a baby in a back pack interviews a nun. The reporter is an old hand — Carol Sturgulewski, formerly Murkowski — who came to Unalaska after a career in newspaper writing when her husband, Roe, became director of the city department of public works.

The family came four years ago, expecting to stay only two. But they’ve grown to appreciate the energy and enthusiasm of a muscular boomtown. And the presence of families like theirs has begun to stabilize the community and make it inviting for more families — who in turn bring more stability.

At home, preparing a dill sauce for last summer’s salmon, Carol speaks with pride and enthusiasm of the town’s public works construction plans. It’s not just that her husband is the public works director: everyone here seems to talk this way.

A town government enriched by Dutch Harbor’s fish boom of the last decade is paying cash for a sudden leap into civic respectability. Unalaska built a new school and will soon need another with all the families coming to town. The town just finished a new city hall and clinic; it plans a community center, a culture and recreation building and paved roads for 1994. Two new grocery stores are opening. Utilities have been built in short order, the police department has plenty of manpower and new equipment, and the town council has cracked down on the bars to keep the fishermen under control.

One infamous bar, the Unisea, was recently remodelled by the Japanese fish company that owns it. Once its grungy decor and dark corners saw frequent fights; patrons tell stories of pushy prostitutes who worked the crowds. Today the Unisea could pass for a yuppie sports bar in any major US city. Patrons say the bar is too nice to get rowdy in. Former bouncers joke about how easy the new guys have it.

"The town is losing that flavor," Carol Sturgulewski says. "People would like to think that flavor is gone altogether, because it feeds on itself. People come here expecting a wild west mentality."

The transition from frontier outpost to home town remains incomplete in other ways. Almost half the residents live in housing provided by their employer, according to a city survey. Others have few choices, and willingly pay $1,000 a month or more for a small apartment, if they can find one.

Sturgulewski looks out a storm-battered window of her employer-provided duplex. Her husband is working late, as usual; the baby sleeps and her older son plays a computer game.

"This is such a workaholic town that everyone just puts in long, long hours," she says. "I love my husband, and sometimes he just fries. You can’t be satisfied with just a 40-hour week, because there’s just too much to do and not enough people. When we first got here, it reminded me of Fairbanks during the pipeline years. People were just moving faster, staying up later."

Darkness hides the slate gray rock which comprises Unalaska landscaping, but the lights of the Sturgulewski’s neighbors sparkle through the rain. Like a resident of any small town, she can tick off the names that go with each light; unique to Unalaska, she can also name the companies that own each of their homes.

Each housing unit belongs to a job. It’s said that the easiest way to find an apartment in Unalaska is to go to Seattle and get a job with a company in the fishing industry. The cost of building — installing utilities in the solid rock of the island, shipping materials, and buying land from the village Native corporation — are too high for individuals to build their own.

But, like all the other challenges for those who would tame Dutch Harbor, the housing problem is just another step toward becoming a real town.

A half-hearted November sunrise lights the island and the sky, where the storm has dissipated in gray. On the land, the aftermath of the wind is nonexistent. Anywhere else, trees would be down and branches strewn in the streets after such a storm, but there are no trees in the Aleutians. Anything on Unalaska that could be damaged by wind must have blown away long ago.

From atop one of the steep, round mountains that comprise the island, the fleet can be seen steaming into Dutch Harbor and approaching from far out to sea. Most of the boats will arrive on time for the noon deadline.

The hills of Unalaska resemble the backs of strong pack animals standing up to their haunches in sea water. Their brown hides are worn thin along the spine, fuller in the heathery slopes that that disappear into the ocean.

Gravel roads draw lines connecting gray bunkers that pock the hillsides. During World War II Unalaska was a major US base defending against the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians. Buildings from that era remain in use in the town — a submarine repair drydock now berths fishing boats, for example.

A building that represents an earlier invasion stands imposingly in the town’s center — the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Ascension of Christ. Currently in its 100th year, the towering white structure is a historic landmark of national significance. At Unalaska, the Aleut Natives’ staged their strongest resistance to Russian enslavement in the 18th century. The island later became a center of Russian commerce and cultural mixing.

Several hundred Aleuts still live in Unalaska, owners of Ounalashka Corp., a village corporation that has boomed along with the fisheries. But few Natives participate in the crab or bottomfish industries that have transformed the town.

The cost of vessels large enough for these stormy waters starts in the millions. Most of the boats — and trawlers several hundred feet in length — belong to companies and established fishing families from Washington and Oregon. It is easier to get a job on a Bering Sea boat there than in Dutch Harbor, and the vast majority of crew members live in the Pacific Northwest. Minimum wage processing plant jobs are more plentiful — at peak seasons processors import more than 2,000 people to work on the lines — but the jobs don’t pay enough to support a year-round resident.

Essentially, the fishing economy of Dutch Harbor is another invasion, hardly involving Unalaska’s original residents except in the vessel repair and marine service sectors.

This invasion began in the 1970s, when king crab boomed. As vessels rushed in to get a share of the bounty, the harvest exploded, growing by a factor of 10 and, by 1980, bringing more than $100 million to fishermen. Processors set up aboard converted World War II Liberty ships permanently moored at dockside. Dutch Harbor became legendary as the wildest, roughest, richest boom town anywhere.

Then the crab disappeared, either from over fishing or due to unknown biological factors. Biologists cancelled the red king crab harvest entirely in 1982, two years after the boom’s peak. Dutch Harbor crashed, too.

King crab has slowly recovered, although never to the level of the boom years. Instead, Dutch harbor started up the economic roller coaster again in the late 1980s, on a bottomfish boom. After Congress mandated that only American vessels could fish within 200 miles of US shores, Dutch Harbor became the obvious port for huge pollock-fishing trawlers and factory ships to deliver their catch, usually for sale as surimi fish paste in Japan or as imitation crab in the US.

This new boom was even bigger than crab had been. Unisea, a Japanese-owned processor that had started on a Liberty ship, built a large, high-tech plant and housing for 1,000 workers, along with two hotels, bars, restaurants, a power plant and other utilities. An espresso bar stands in the parking lot. The compound lies between a small boat harbor on one side and a carved rock wall on the other — it looks like a heavy-duty vacation resort.

"It’s the largest fishing port in the world, and we’re the largest processor in the port," says Terry Schaff, vice president for Unisea’s Dutch Harbor operations, as he puts on his gear to pack crab. Due to a manpower shortage, the management, including the manager of the new four-star hotel, are working on the processing line.

A few more details have lagged behind the explosion. In 1981, the state built a wooden-decked bridge to link industrial Dutch Harbor proper, on Amaknak Island, to Unalaska Island, where the traditional town stands. The deck wears out frequently under the crush of heavy trucks. Now it will be paved, Mayor Frank Kelty says. The official name, however, will remain, "The Bridge to the Other Side."

Kelty rattles off the city’s frantic construction schedule between urgent drags on a quick succession of cigarettes. As manager of the Alyeska Seafoods plant, the second largest processor in town, the flood of crab has robbed him of sleep for the last 24 hours and keeps him on the phone to Japan and elsewhere with the latest catch, price and trade secrets.

Kelty is a contradiction. The biggest booster of the town’s new community stability, he is also a product of its boom town excitement and opportunity. He came to Unalaska as a slime line processing worker in 1972. "I was always going to go back to school, and with the adventure of it all I never left," he says.

"It’s a very exciting community to be living in. There’s been a lot of money to change hands during the boom times. It was pretty wide open."

Not anymore. Kelty initiated a letter writing campaign to tell fishermen they would be arrested if they misbehaved, and their boats could get in trouble, too. The bars were told to shape up. Kelty believes the town is changing.

But now he’s back on the phone. More dealing, activity, speed.

Outside the office, in the big waiting room where fishermen and processing line workers hang out and drink coffee from a huge, perpetually brewing urn, a young crewman is on the phone to his father back in Oregon. In the past week, he says, he made $8,500 — no cause for celebration, but enough to pay off his back taxes from last season.

It’s not only the money that draws the crab fishermen to sea, or so they say. They talk about the danger and hardship of the work as if they were fringe benefits, not drawbacks. The pride is an unblinking laser light in skipper Spencer Bronson’s eyes.

"When you’re at sea, you create your own reality. It’s just the work and how you’re going to deal with it, hour to hour. You’re on you own, and how well you do just depends on you own abilities."

Everyone in the bar seems to have a full beard; Bronson’s is trimmed with surgical precision and he speaks with an equal air of control. Across the table, crewman Chuck Kunesh’s blond beard is comparatively shaggy. He fills in the blanks in Bronson’s talk. The skipper, he suggests, is a fishing genius.

"It’s a pretty good feeling, coming to town knowing you beat most of the fleet," Kunesh says.

The Elbow Room is Dutch Harbor’s most notorious bar, but Kunesh and Bronson aren’t helping it live up to its reputation on the fleet’s first night in port. Bronson doesn’t touch his beer. Kunesh isn’t drinking much, either.

Kunesh says he’d be in bed with the flu but he wanted to celebrate making about a third of his annual income in the last 10 days. He makes a lot of money.

"I was working in a furniture factory when I came up here. I was making $4.50 an hour, and I realized I was never going to get what I wanted. I was never going to be able to buy a house like my father did. I knew if I was going to get somewhere in the world I was going to get there on my own.

"I bought a house in ‘89," he adds. "But I don’t know what it’s like to live in it."

Like other fishermen, he spends most of his time at sea.

The band strikes up "Born to Be Wild." It’s loud enough in the bar, which is no larger than a suburban living room, but the fishermen aren’t playing the part. Outrageous acts surface only as a subject of conversation, in the form of nostalgia.

Rick Williams describes how he and his buddies used to float to the bar in survival suits before The Bridge to the Other Side was built. The problem was getting back after they got too drunk to swim.

"I’ve seen some wild things in this Elbow Room, when there was no window and a phone booth in the corner," he says. "I saw some incredible stuff happen in that phone booth."

But he doesn’t elaborate. Williams is more interested in catching up with old friends from around the fleet, trading information and stories about the season. He tells of his moment of horror when he thought he’d lost his crew off the back deck. The conversation is about work.

"It used to be like the wild west, for sure," he says. "There was one cop in town, and anything happened. It’s not that way anymore. People have grown up. It’s gotten more civilized. You drive drunk now, you get caught."

Sgt. Nixon pulls through the Elbow Room’s parking lot looking for misdeeds. The department now has 26 officers, including fire and rescue personnel. Patrolling from one end of town to the other takes only a matter of minutes.

Nixon, a towering, slow-talking, friendly cop, stops a couple of fishermen walking down the street drinking beer and makes them pour it out on the ground, then asks them about their catch.

Back in the car he laughs. "You get out here in the winter and it could be a minus 30 wind chill, and there will be people walking around drinking cold beer," he says.

The next day, at the airport bar, fishermen swill $5 imported beers while greased men grin maniacally in a body-building competition on cable in half a dozen televisions. Signs all over the airport warn passengers they can’t get on the plane drunk, a leading cause of getting stuck in Dutch Harbor. But the party goes on in the bar.

All the passengers on a full 20-seat plane to Anchorage are men. The pilot gives a safety briefing from the front of the cabin, then notes that there is no toilet on board for the three-hour flight. He lets a couple of the men off to relieve themselves behind a shed on the tarmac, then fires up the props.

Aloft, the island of Unalaska quickly disappears in the vastness of the dark North Pacific. The island’s isolation and vulnerability suggest the ocean could swallow it without a splash. In fact, only the human economy of Dutch Harbor stands vulnerable. Economically, the people look to the sea with trepidation.

Crab catches are declining steeply while pollock, the harvest driving the current boom, shows disturbing signs of over fishing. The fleet has gotten too large, forcing ever-shorter seasons. Processing capacity is also over-built. Plants built to operate year round now run only four or five months a year. One Unalaska processor recently started taking deliveries of marlin and swordfish from the Hawaiian fleet.

Meanwhile, some of the fisheries have are moving away to the north. A newly improved port in the Pribilof Islands lures away boats in the opilio or snow crab fishery. The Unisea Liberty ship processing plant docked in Unalaska since the company’s beginnings cast off lines recently for a new berth there.

"If we’re going to continue to be in the opilio crab industry, we have to go up there," says Schaff, Unisea’s manager. "Every time someone else expands, you have to expand to keep your share, and that contributes to the problem."

Fishermen are bracing for a crash.

"The fishing’s going down hill for the next few years," says skipper Rick Williams, whose family owns a large fishing company. "We held on by our fingernails back in the early 80s. This time we’ll have to hold on by our teeth, too."

But despite the physical and economic risk -- the gamble of death for money that’s part of the job -- Williams wouldn’t tame king crab fishing.

"We want to keep it the way it is, the American way," he says. "You go out and work your ass off and take what you can get."