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ANCHORAGE - Federal fishery managers are poised to eliminate open derbies for Bering sea crab fisheries in an effort to create a safer industry.
A new system set to be implemented this year will assign individual catch quotas for each boat, doing away with a highly competitive system.
Many in the industry say that individual quotas may save lives by eliminating some of the frenzy in crabbing.
Fishery managers still must finish regulatory paperwork to launch the new crab management plan by an October target date.
Barring unexpected snags, this year's opilio - or snow crab - fishery, which opened at noon Saturday, will be the last crab race in the Bering Sea.
A major reason fishing for king and snow crab is so dangerous is that the shellfish are harvested in winter, when their legs are fullest with meat. Boats heave and dive in rough weather, large waves break over the gunwales, and wooden deck planking often ices over. So much ice can build up on boats that they become top-heavy and flip over.
In the race for crab, fishermen skip sleep to launch and haul hundreds of 600-pound steel traps, called pots, that capture the crabs on the sea floor.
From 1991 to 1996 in Alaska's crab fisheries, 61 people died, with most of the fatalities occurring when boats were operating in heavy weather, according to a study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
For the past four seasons, however, the winter snow crab fishery saw no vessels sink and no one die, On Saturday, however, at least two fishermen died when a boat sunk. Rescuers were searching Sunday for three missing crew members, as well as a crewman who was washed overboard another vessel.
Vessel safety experts say the Coast Guard has been more diligent in inspecting vessels at the dock. Also, federal regulations that took hold in the early 1990s require safety gear such as survival suits and emergency transmitters that activate when a boat sinks. There is also a new safety consciousness among crabbers.