The Value of Crab

For such a niche profession, Alaskan crab fisheries have a surprisingly strong cultural presence. Through shows such as Deadliest Catch (now on its 17th season), crab fishermen showcase the rewards of hard work. It’s the classic American tale. Work through sleepless nights in dangerous conditions, push yourself past to your limits and past them, and all that pain and sacrifice will be rewarded. You’ll get a huge paycheck, you’ll work your way up from a greenhorn to a captain, you might even be a celebrity.

From my hometown of Homer, Alaska – we used to have a gift shop dedicated to merch for a single Deadliest Catch ship. Also the best pizza in town next door.

But if you follow the crabs to shore, you run into a crowd of people whose hard work isn’t getting them TV deals, or even a decent wage. Upon returning to port, an army of workers descends on the ship to offload the crab, check each for quality, break them into chunks ready for sale, and place them into boxes for freezing and shipment. It’s backbreaking, monotonous, dangerous work. It’s also extraordinarily valuable – without the work of seafood processors, all that delicious crab and fish wouldn’t make it anywhere near your dinner table.

To get an idea for the difficulty of offloading crab, put two gallons of milk on the floor. Now put them on a shelf at head height. Repeat that around 500 times. Congratulations – with the help of a few friends, you could offload a small delivery from one ship! Of course, in real life, you’re cold and wet, standing in an uneven and swaying hold. The gallons of milk don’t have convenient handles – they’re covered in sharp spines and if you misplace a hand they might pinch you hard enough to cause nerve damage. And after you finish that delivery, you have another, and then another. Let’s be kind and say just another 9 hours.

Though their work requires strength, skill, and tenacity, crab processors get far less than they deserve. Over a 12-hour shift, they take home only $140. Most in the industry work seasonally, but even optimistically assuming year-round 40-hour work weeks, that’s only $24,000 per year. Now, they do get other benefits – generally, housing and food is covered during the season. But “housing” often means staying in crowded, rat-infested dorms with moldy mattresses and raw sewage. Those dirty, cramped conditions meant that processors were hot spots for COVID, with some outbreaks infecting over 75% of workers.

AIG = Aleutian Island golden king crab, BBR = Bristol Bay red king crab, BSS = Bering Sea snow crab,
BST = Bering Sea Tanner crab. Note the difference in scale on the graphs on the right.
Images from this report

Low-paying, physically taxing jobs in unhygienic conditions aren’t desirable for many. But instead of simply offering higher wages, seafood processors typically fly in temporary foreign workers (often from countries that have been politically and economically devastated by US policy) who lack better options. Interestingly, the processing industry hasn’t exactly been subtle about bending the rules with visas. Until 2012, many seafood processors were actually foreign students, with their work legally designated as “cultural exchange”. This creates racial stratification that is particularly jarring to witness. On the floor of the plant, English takes a backseat to Spanish and Tagalog, but upstairs in the offices, nearly everyone is white.

Often, discussions of low pay are met with the refrain that workers should have chosen jobs that were “more valuable”. But what does that mean? Well, let’s look at it from the perspective of the owner. If they pay the average processor $11.85 per hour, then by definition, the processor must be producing more than $11.85 of value (even after accounting for expenses like operating costs). If it didn’t, the owner would have no reason to hire them! That extra value then goes to the owner as profit. And there is plenty of profit to be made – the owner of Trident Seafood, one of the larger processors operating in the Bering Sea, is worth around $1.1 billion. These fisheries are unbelievably lucrative. The problem is, the workers aren’t the ones getting it.

So, what is to be done? How do we fix this obvious injustice? Unfortunately, it isn’t simply a matter of pointing it out – most of this exploitation is entirely legal. And the illegal exploitation that exists (such as rampant wage theft) has no real mechanism for enforcement. Voting in politicians and changing the laws works in the abstract, but politicians are far more answerable to American billionaires than working-class non-citizens. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but when I look at pushes for better treatment of food production workers – both historical and current – I don’t see people asking politely for change. Instead, I see people uniting together and using the power they have as workers to force that change to happen.

We picture the crab fishery as a Bering Sea fisherman headed back home. He’s dead tired, the caffeine barely putting an edge on the dull exhaustion that blankets him. But he’s happy too. He made good money out there, enough to pay the bills and a good chunk more too. When they pull up to offload their catch, he can sit back, relax, and watch the dollar bills be hauled out of the hold. But we ignore the mansions of the owners and upper management, paid for with millions from the labor of others. And we certainly ignore the middle-aged woman up at the processor pulling her gloves over arthritic fingers. She’ll be on her feet for another 12 hours, stacking boxes, cracking open crabs, filleting fish. Despite all her hard work, she won’t make anywhere near a fair day’s pay. As people who are in some way adjacent to the crab industry, we have a responsibility to make sure she gets it.

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