Alaska's crab fishermen wait for licences amid US federal shutdown

Crews waiting for permits at start of their peak season and Nobel Prize winner who can't get into his lab are among victims of political deadlock

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 8:39am


Crab fishermen face being plunged into crisis by the US federal government shutdown as its effects spread far outside Washington and the national parks.

With the National Marine Fisheries Service offices closed, they have been unable to get permits for the Alaska king crab season, which begins tomorrow.

Keith Colburn, the captain of an Alaskan crab boat featured in the popular Deadliest Catch reality show on Discovery channel, went to Washington to testify at a hearing on the impact of the shutdown.

He said: "This is the first time in my 28 years of fishing that I haven't been in the Bering Sea in October getting ready to go fish."

He said if the fishermen were kept waiting for their paperwork it could mean they miss out on the lucrative Japanese holiday market for their catch.

Colburn, captain of Wizard, told the Senate Commerce Committee: "If the Japanese buyers don't have Alaskan product on hand for the New Year's holiday, they will source their crab from Russia."

Although the closure of the national parks has grabbed the headlines, the government has suspended a wide range of lesser-known functions - often carried out by obscure agencies - but still critical to various groups, from farmers to physicists.

The shutdown's effects have been felt as far away as Antarctica, where a research programme has been shelved.

In California, citrus growers are worried about running out of pesticides for crops because Environmental Protection Agency inspectors have been sent on leave. In Oklahoma, the closure of a Federal Aviation Administration office that must sign off on new aircraft has held up the delivery of more than 150 small private aircraft worth US$1.9 billion.

Senator John Rockefeller said at Friday's hearing: "One of the people at home on furlough without salary is a National Institute of Standards and Technology employee named Dr David Wineland, who I'd never heard of. The Nobel Prize committee, however, had heard of Wineland and they gave him a Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work on atomic physics. Well, he's just sitting at home and can't go to his lab."

A federal database called E-Verify that employers use to check the immigration status of job applicants has been halted since the start of the shutdown.

"Imagine the chaos when it comes back and everyone is scrambling at once to verify people they didn't verify during the shutdown," said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington-based group.

More than 409,000 employers in the country use the database to check the immigration status of new employees.

The US Chemical Safety Board, like its better-known counterpart the National Transportation Safety Board, has suspended its investigations, including an inquiry into a fire last year at a refinery in the San Francisco Bay area. Agricultural reports upon which farmers rely to make decisions - such as how to price crops and which commodities to grow - are unavailable because the National Agricultural Statistics Service is closed.

And in the District of Columbia, no winning D.C. Lottery tickets will be cashed until after the shutdown is over.

As for the crabbers, they say they prepare for a lot of contingencies - bad weather and mechanical problems, for example - but they never figured on a government shutdown.

Mark Gleason, the head of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a Seattle-based trade association, was in Washington on Friday attempting to put a personal face on the impact of the shutdown.

In an interview, he described his members as "in disbelief and in disgust". Dozens of boats are already in Dutch Harbour, Alaska, waiting for their permits.

Ed Poulsen, a Seattle-based boat owner, said: "There's just a big sense of frustration among the fleet that this situation is occurring, and we're caught in the crosshairs."