Gas shortage on St. Paul Island causing days-long detours for crab boats

St. Paul announced a gas ration on Feb. 22 after bad weather canceled the arrival of a fuel barge. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The COVID-19 pandemic has already disrupted Alaska’s winter Bering Sea fishing seasons, closing plants and adding quarantine-related complications for crews.

Now, some boats are contending with a shortage of fuel at a key island port, leaving them with less time to catch their quota.

The Bering Sea community of St. Paul, one of the Pribilof Islands, announced the gas ration late last month after bad weather canceled the arrival of a fuel barge, and fishermen say it’s forcing them into days-long detours for refueling.

“I seem to remember we had some rations, years back, but it was nothing like this,” Oystein Lone, the captain of a 98-foot crab boat, said in an interview over a satellite phone.

He and his five-person crew on the Pacific Sounder just started fishing for bairdi — also known as tanner crab — on the eastern side of the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.

Lone and his crew are prepared to deliver their catch in nearby St. Paul. Normally, they’d unload crab and resume fishing immediately.

But this year, after unloading, they’ll have to run more than 250 miles south to Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands, to refuel before heading north again. Some of the other four dozen crab boats currently fishing for snow and bairdi crab are more than 500 miles away from Dutch Harbor, Lone said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this, where the vessels are having to offload and run to Dutch Harbor to fuel up and then run back up to the grounds, adding three to four days onto their trips,” Lone said. “And that’s getting to be the normal this season.”

The refueling trips are required because of St. Paul’s gas ration. The remote island of 375 residents has been expecting its fuel barge for more than two months, but it hasn’t arrived.

That’s because of weather and other logistical delays, said City Manager Phil Zavadil.

It’s not the first time in Zavadil’s more than 20 years in St. Paul that the fuel barge has been late.

“I remember one year, they flew in drums of gasoline and it was like $13 a gallon, we were rationing at five gallons a week,” he said. “Throughout this, we’ve kept the price the same. We’ve been lucky enough to do that.”

The ration has affected residents as well as fishermen, Zavadil said. Those living on the island can’t buy more than five gallons of gas per vehicle each week.

That’s made it hard for many people to do more than the essential tasks of driving their children to school, the post office or the island’s grocery store, Zavadil said.

Boats, meanwhile, can get just 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel per trip.

Lone, the crab fisherman, said that 3,000 gallons is almost nothing.

He carries about 18,000 gallons of fuel per trip when he leaves port. But after his latest delivery in St. Paul, he only has about two thirds of that, and plans to ease up on the throttles to make it through his trip before heading to Dutch Harbor to refuel.

“If you ran out of fuel, that would be devastating,” Lone said. “You don’t push it close to that at all. But I’ve got a feeling some guys are probably pushing it a lot closer than they’d like this year because of the fuel restrictions.”

With the gas ration preserving St. Paul’s supplies, the island will manage for a bit longer, Zavadil said.

But if the barge doesn’t come soon, its infrastructure — including Trident Seafoods’ fish processing plant, which nearly doubles the island’s population — could be forced to shut down, Zavadil added. The island could even go dark, because it depends on diesel for power generation, he said.

“So we’re all kind of in the same boat together,” Zavadil said. “We’re all waiting on the fuel barge to come.”

Zavadil said North Pacific Fuel — the company that serves St. Paul and other areas in the region — has told him they expect the barge to show up in the next couple of weeks.

Officials at the company declined to comment.

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