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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

20 May 2011

❖ King Crab ❖ The Delicious Monsters!

Fisherman aboard the beam trawler 
Photo Life, photographer unknown.
The year 1941 will always live in the memory of a man named Lowell Wakefield, son of an Alaskan family long engaged in the business of herring fishing. That was the year he first saw "haystacks" in the sea, off the storm buffeted island of Kodiak. There appeared at lowtide a phenomenon seldom witnessed except on rare occasions by fishermen off the lonely coasts around Alaska and the Bering Sea--hundreds of giant King crabs, piled one on top of another in a huge pyramid--why, even the most eggheaded students of creatures of the deep have never been able to explain.
      The Kodiak islanders gathered the beached giants and had a memorable crabfest. The meat of the claws and legs proved to be more delicate than lobster and astonishing flavorsome. Wakefield's imagination was fired by the incident. These scores of fabulous crabs were a type seldom seen in the area, vicious-clawed monsters, some of them measuring six feet from tip to tip. As it turned out, he was destined to pioneer from these ugly eight-legged creatures, a $6 million industry never before essayed by an American.
      Wakefield sent some specimens to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Seattle. "These are delicious," he said, "but what kind of crabs are they?" Veterans of the Wildlife Service identified them as Paralithodes camtschatics, specimens of the King Crab, a giant crustacean peculiar to the North Pacific. When WWll ended, Captain Wakefield decided to go a-crabing. The Japanese with their floating canneries had been crab fishing commercially for years. Wakefield had a better idea--not canning, but freezing the delicious meat of the crabs taken fresh from the sea.
        As the crabs were hauled aboard, they were dumped into "live" tanks of circulating sea water where removed from the mighty pressure of the sea, they became sluggish and manageable. They were then washed, placed into wire baskets and plunged immediately into boiling water and cooked. The meat was removed, frozen in blocks and, as an extra insurance to perfection, covered with a freezing glaze of fresh, clear water. The DEEP SEA could freeze and store 170 tons of crab meat.
      The first three years were rough ones, during which Wakefield struggled to create a market. By 1950, the battle began to pay off. Fine restaurants were buying Wakefield's new frozen crab heavily, and it had made its first appearance in grocery stores. Two years later, Captain Wakefield was face-to-face with a brand new problem--demand threatened to exceed the supply.
      He made a quick decision that seemed foolhardy to old hands along the Seattle waterfront. He decided to risk a winter voyage to the Bering. The DEEP SEA was the only fishing vessel underwriters ever insured for winter voyages, but even she had always kept to port in January and February.
      The trip across the North Pacific was rough but uneventful. They stopped for fuel and water at False Pass, Alaska, on 31 January and two days later they took on three more crew members at the village of Akutan to make up a full twenty-two man complement. Early in the morning of 4 February, they reached their destination and began fishing operations.
       It was clear, calm, and cold. They made two prospecting hauls without success, but the third trawl showed promise.
       Then it began to blow, and for 5 full days, all hands fought the fury of the Arctic. It was a norther, 80-miles-an-hour fresh from the Polar ice cap, and the temperature was minus 14. Each sea crashing over the ship added to the tons of ice forming on decks, superstructure, and rigging, and the men chopped and beat at it with axes, crowbars and clubs day and night to prevent capsizing.
       On the tenth, the wind swung to the southwest and moderated to a gentle breeze. Air temp climbed to 22 degrees. A net was dug out from under two feet of solid ice and went over the side for a one-hour tow. As it was lifted alongside the ship, jammed to the wings with 8 or 10 thousand crabs, it was carried away from the sheer weight of the enormous creatures, and net and haul were lost.
      A new net was bent on, and trawling operations continued. They ended up packing to maximum capacity--15,000 pounds of King Crab legs and claws a day. Captain Wakefield had accomplished his purpose. His hard-earned market had an unfailing, year-round supply of King Crab, as promised.  
This story on small, yellowing, pages
was published in Photo Life,
date and author unknown. 
This image accompanied the article &
illustrated the action on board the DEEP SEA. 
For the fate of the DEEP SEA please see this link.

The Wakefield family lived for a short time at Griswold, Shaw Island, and West Sound, Orcas Island in the late 1800s.
Lee Wakefield owned Apex Cannery on Fidalgo Island.

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