BY CHRIS COCOLES
It’s a rivalry that never dies – from the Cold War to Olympic hockey games to accusations of presidential election interference. Russia vs. the United States is a part of both nations’ pulse – for better or worse.
The feud has spilled into the Bering Sea’s lucrative crab fishery in this season’s ongoing Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch, which continues with new episodes into this month with an intriguing new storyline. The twist: Russia has cracked down on the country’s trend of illegal fishing and revamping its crab quota, which would dramatically drive up the market price for prized king crab.
So for captains like Josh Harris, it’s only added to the pressure boats are under to not only outperform their longtime rivals from Alaska, but also beat the talented fishermen from just across the Bering Strait who now have more access to these valuable crustaceans.
“We’re always running into a snag in the Bering Sea,” Harris says.
That was never more evident in the first episode of the new season, when Harris and his business partner and friend, Capt. Casey McManus, took their boat, F/V Cornelia Marie, out for the first time after a million-dollar renovation in the offseason. The boat unexpectedly developed a mechanical problem, which forced them to turn around and head back to home base at Dutch Harbor for repairs, potentially ruining their season before it even started.
“Right when you get brand-new stuff you expect it to work,” Harris says. “But it doesn’t always work out that way and it could cost you the whole season.”
We chatted with Harris – like so many else he was isolated at home during the coronavirus pandemic – to discuss his ups and downs taking on not only fellow crabbing skippers like Sig Hansen, “Wild” Bill Wichrowski and Keith Colburn, but also matching wits with comrades from Russia.
Chris Cocoles Tell us about the influence that Russia’s changing of its regulations and cracking down on illegal fishing impacted your American boats.
JH They not only did that but they’ve upped their processing product. So it’s more superior (than before) and similar to ours now. So in price quality, there’s less crab at the market and higher quality in crab at both ends. So we start fishing at the same time, but they’ve got these monster boats over there; just huge. [Harris’ Cornelia Marieis one of the bigger vessels as well].
A long time ago – in the late 1980s – Americans went over and taught these guys how to fish in this industry. And so they’ve got the mentality that we have, and now they have a product that’s similar to the one that we have. But it’s who’s going to get to the market first. It’s tough, because if they hit the market first, they’re getting $2 to $5 more a pound than we are. When you’re catching a couple hundred thousand pounds of crab, that’s a huge difference. And if the (Russians) are getting more of a price it sucks. We depend on getting that huge price; we’ve always had that big price.
So now, we’re competing against them. And there are very talented individuals over there. So are we, but it’s that we really have to kick it into high drive and get out there. Or else you’ll be bankrupt. And a lot of guys folded this year. We had a total of 47 boats fishing for king crab and snow crab. And a lot of those didn’t hit the market in time and they’re folding. So it’s been a tough time. We had to push our guys extremely hard and it’s serious stuff. Feast or famine, my man.
CC Do the Russians do things any differently than you guys do?
JH They used to; not anymore though. Now we both have a superior product coming out. They used to split the market with a lot of illegally caught crab. And now it’s not the case and they’re doing everything to the specs and to the book. And usually we got a crack at the market first because our product was processed properly. It was a higher-grade product. But now, since they’ve cut down everything and really started focusing on their product and by limiting the amount that’s coming in, it’sdefinitely upped the ante. And we’ve got to be on the ball here or else we’re going to be out of business.
CC How did you and Casey react to this news of Russia getting its fleet more opportunities?
JH A lot more yelling [Laughs]. It created a really high-intensity, high-stress situation. We’ve got to go out into weather we normally wouldn’t have fished in, because if we don’t do that there’s not going to be food on our table. And I’ve got to turn my keys into the bank. It’s one of those deals that we’ve got to really (expletive) take it to the limit. We’ll push it as far as we can. It’s a fine line teetering on that.
CC How amped up were yours and the other boats to get out there and do your thing?
JH You’re amped up, but you know you have to do things that are outside your comfort zone. And the guys know that too. So it creates a high-stress situation. It’s huge. You watch the Russian boats going in to deliver and you don’t know when their product is going to market. But when you see them get close, it changes your whole perspective. You can yell at your guys that we’ve got to go, go, go – when they’re tired, the weather’s crap. But we’re fishing still; it’s intimidating.
CC Is there any kind of mystery regarding what the Russians have in their fleets from your perspective?
JH I’m sure it goes both ways. We can see where their boats are at and we know when they’re going to town. (But) we don’t know how much they have on board and what’s really going on over there. One thing I do know: We need food on our plates and want a house to live in. So we’ve just got to do it.
CC I have to ask you how frustrated it must have been to have this new and improved Cornelia Marie, and your first time out for the season you develop this oil pressure problem and have to return to Dutch Harbor. What was that like?
JH I would tell you what was going through my mind with a lot of those colorful words that I probably shouldn’t have said. But little stuff like that could have just killed it for us. The guys making just a couple grand rather than maybe 30- or 40-grand. It’s a big difference. And it would be on us because we’re driving the boat; we own the boat.
CC Is that one of those moments where you and Casey as co-owners have to take a deep breath yourselves first and get everyone else back focused again?
JH You don’t know what’s going to happen and the guys lose that secured feeling. They definitely don’t want to work for you if you can’t answer that… So you’ve got to stay on top of your game – two steps ahead.
CC You’ve been doing this for a long time and you learned a lot from your dad (the late Capt. Phil Harris), but how do you keep your crew focused? Do you have to serve as a dad – or even a coach out there?
JH Oh, their dad; their coach; their psychologist. You have to be all that stuff. Keep everyone sane, because if they’re not thinking about their job, they’re going to tire and maybe kill the guy next to them.
CC When you first were able to get back out after the return to Dutch Harbor for the repairs, what was it like for your morale?
JH The biggest thing was finding out if we just lost. Are we going to be able to get crab in time? Where’s the market at? Are we going to make the market or be a day short? The guys knew that it was a possibility that we’d get poked over this. But they worked that much harder to ensure us that once we landed a crab we’d make it as fast as was humanly possible. It was a good motivational thing, but at the same time really scary. You don’t have a reset button. So if I fail, well, my crew fails too.
CC I guess if you’re talking silver linings, motivation wasn’t a factor from that point on?
JH One-hundred percent. They definitely were more motivated than ever. They understood the stakes, and even though they didn’t want to be out working for 36 hours straight, they did it. And there was minimal bitching, so that was a good thing.
CC It looks like one of the breakout stars of the season is going to be your new deckhand, (Alaska Native) Maria Dosal. What was her impact on the crew?
JH It was interesting all the way around. She’s done a good job, so kudos to her. And we’ll see what happens after this season.
CC How much does any new crewmember change the dynamics of your crew in terms of chemistry and being in sync? When you add someone, are there negative and positive variables to consider?
JH Every season is different. And every crewmember is different. But it comes down to balancing everything out. And that’s the biggest part. If you can balance everything out, you can move mountains, and that’s what you need to do in crab fishing.
CC I know you can’t give away too much about how it ultimately all played out, but overall how did this season go for you?
JH Personally it went fine. But a lot of other guys went out there and they lost their ass. When your (crew) sees that happening, they have a lot more respect for the boat they’re on. Some guys killed it, but very few killed it. Ninety percent of the fleet did not. And it’s just a crazy deal and a lot of (owners) are going to lose their boats this year.
CC And that’s when it fascinates me about how much pressure you’re under to perform, make your quota and make money and ensure that you don’t go under. How tough is that?
JH Right now it’s nonstop with everything that’s going on in the industry. We released 47 boats and now we’re down to like 37 or 38 boats… Everything is changing in this industry. ASJ
Editor’s note: A new episode of Deadliest Catch airs tonight on Discovery Channel (check local listings). Go to discovery.com/shows/deadliest-catch for more. Like the F/V Cornelia Marie at facebook.com/CorneliaMarie. This story appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.
Josh Harris is also starting a new venture in Hawaii following in the footsteps of his late father Phil Harris in a new Discovery Channel series, Deadliest Catch: Bloodline. Tonight’s episode will air immediately after Deadliest Catch. Here’s a sneak preview clip and some information about the new series:
A NEW ADVENTURE IN HAWAII
Josh Harris followed in his legendary father Phil’s footsteps as a daring Alaska crabfisherman. Phil Harris was a larger-than-life character who appeared on the early seasons of Deadliest Catch before passing away unexpectedly in 2010 at just 53 years old.
Josh took over as captain of the Cornelia Marieand carried on the Harris name. But now the younger generation of the family has embarked on a new adventure – about as far away from frigid Alaska as one can get.
In going over his dad’s personal belongings, Josh Harris found handwritten charts of Phil’s fishing spots from the coast of Kona, Hawaii, on the Big Island. Phil longed to eventually get back to Hawaii after he spent some of his younger years there in the 1980s, and Josh will get this chance on a spinoff series, Deadliest Catch: Bloodline, which is airing on Tuesday nights after new episodes of Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel.
Josh and Cornelia Marie co-owner Casey McManus purchased a boat, solicited the help of a respected local commercial fisherman and – armed with Phil’s 1980s-era chart – took on the new challenge.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was my third time ever to Hawaii but I had never fished out there. It was intense in following these charts,” Josh Harris says.
“My dad had always wanted to catch a big marlin; never did. So that was where the premise of what we were focusing on. And getting out there and seeing it could be about a business – that’s why my dad went out there – it was more than a sporting event.”
Harris admits that – despite his longtime passion for recreational fishing with rods and reels – this was a whole new ballgame for him and McManus compared to their commercial crabbing experience.
“I’m a crab fisherman. I fish for things with legs. I don’t fish for things with fins,” he jokes. “I’ve come to find that I’m not really good at that.” CC