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Off-the-beaten-path careers

Alaskan crab fishing

Next time you snap open a king crab claw, think about the people who brave some of the world's harshest working conditions to bring these scary-looking but tasty ocean crustaceans to your table.

The industry, like the quarry it pursues, is huge in Alaska.

Some 80,000 jobs in the state are related to commercial fishing, according to John Hilsinger, director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Commercial Fisheries Division.

Those drawn to the rugged wilderness of Alaska and the seasonal work schedule of Alaskan crab fishers often earn lucrative pay, but not without great physical exertion.

Work on the Bering Sea, where the fishing takes place, is grueling and dangerous, and unless you have significant at-sea experience, you can easily find yourself facing a life-threatening situation on the open ocean in the middle of winter -- the height of the king crab season.

Weather conditions on the Bering Sea can change rapidly, and waves as tall as two-story buildings are common.

Still, crew members are not in short supply despite the industry's high occupational fatality rate.

"I think it attracts people who are independent-minded and who are not interested in punching a time clock," Hilsinger says. "They like to work outdoors and sometimes make big incomes. Plus there's an element of excitement and risk to it."

The king crab season typically lasts for only two months.

Experienced crewmembers working on top-producing boats often earn a decent percentage of the season's catch with the captain and other senior crewmembers taking home the largest percentage after expenses.

Inexperienced deckhands, or greenhorns, earn substantially less and are often paid a day rate, according to Hilsinger.

What they do: Fish for one of three king crab species in addition to opilio and snow crabs.

Pros: Potentially high wages earned in a short amount of time. During the off-season, crewmembers can fish for other species such as salmon to supplement their incomes.

Cons: The work is extremely dangerous, hours are long and work conditions can be brutal. In addition, crewmembers are responsible for buying their own boots, coats and survival gear, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Education required: No formal education is required, although substantial experience working on a commercial fishing vessel is recommended.

Salary range: Boat captains can earn around 15 percent after expenses; engineers and other senior crew may earn 7 to 7.5 percent; inexperienced crewmembers may earn 2 to 3 percent of the season's catch.  In terms of dollars, experienced crew members can earn between $15,000 and $40,000 during the short two-month season, according to estimates by Forrest Bowers, a fisheries biologist based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

A job that's good for: Those who like working outdoors and do not like prescribed work schedules.


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