Bering Sea crab crash jeopardizes St. Paul Island’s emergency medical services

St. Paul in 2015 (Ian Dickson/KTOO)

The collapse of the Bering Sea crab fisheries has put St. Paul Island at risk of losing some of its essential services.

The city’s economy is about 90% dependent on the harvest of snow crab, which closed for the first time in the fishery’s history in October. Without Bering Sea snow crab or Bristol Bay red king crab — which has been closed since 2021 — the City of St. Paul is estimating a roughly $2.7 million hit.

In light of those anticipated losses, St. Paul’s city government declared a cultural, economic and social emergency in late October following the fishery closures, and subsequently implemented budgetary cuts, hiring freezes and other measures.

Now, the Pribilof Island community faces the loss of its emergency medical services.

The community of about 350 people has one emergency medical technician — who is currently off island. And according to City Manager Phil Zavadil, there is only enough funding to employ them through the rest of the month. After that, the remote community will have to rely on local volunteers.

“Essentially, if something were to happen, we’ll go grab somebody in the ambulance and take them to the clinic, and that’s pretty much the extent of what can be done,” Zavadil said. 

He said that’s not ideal, but “with 60% of tax revenue gone, with no crab season, you have to make those tough choices.”

The city hires EMTs rather than relying on volunteers through the police force, which they had done previously, until the entire force resigned in late 2021, citing a vaccination requirement for city workers. It costs about $160,000 a year for the EMT contract, according to Zavadil.

He said there are emergency trauma technicians on the island, but they don’t have the extensive training of an EMT, who is certified by the state to perform various lifesaving procedures.

Zavadil estimates that the city has a budget deficit of roughly $900,000, and he said city officials are working to avoid overspending now, which could eventually lead to mass layoffs and bankruptcy later on.

We’re in a difficult spot,” he said. “As I talk to our staff and others, I have to caution them of overspending because we don’t know how long the crab crash is gonna last.”

The city is relying on donations to keep its medical services. The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island and the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association have donated enough money to keep the city’s contracted emergency medical services through the end of January.

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