Written by Jen Finn
An enterprising crabber offers tourists a gull's eye view
By Susan Chambers
Nine years in the wheelhouse of a Bering Sea crabber is a long time to think about a way to bring commercial fishing to life for the non-crabbing folk.
The culmination of those thoughts — turning an honest-to-goodness, wave-battered, king crab-catching vessel into a tourist business — collided with the burgeoning popularity of "Deadliest Catch," the Discovery Channel's most-watched TV show.
"At that time, I saw the vision to take people out commercial fishing out of Ketchikan," says David Lethin, skipper of the Aleutian Ballad and owner of the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour. "I would look at the ocean. I would look at the crew. I kept thinking, 'If you could just bring that to life...'"
Lethin admits it was an off-the-wall idea, but one that already has paid off in terms of customer approval. Lethin and the crew of the Aleutian Ballad began taking up to 150 visitors per trip. From Ketto nearby Annette Island in July — and showing them the thrills of catching king crab, Dungeness crab, octopus, longlining for blackcod, halibut and rockfish and the natural beauty of Southeast Alaska.
So far, only a couple people have called Bering Sea veteran Lethin crazy, though one did say he's "sold out."
But Lethin's fishing career reads like the career of many a highliner, but with a new twist to the most recent chapter: Chapter 1: Dream of fishing. Chapter 2: Deckhand. Chapter 3: Buy a boat. Chapter 4: Buy a bigger boat. Chapter 5: Build an even bigger boat. Chapter 6: Put your quota and other boats to work, build on the popularity of the "Deadliest Catch" and run a tourist business.
Lethin's idea of taking a solid player in the Bering Sea crab fishery and turning it into a tour business — on the face of it — may seem crazy or a "sellout" to some.
But it doesn't take long for the Aleutian Ballad's owner to convince anyone that the vessel's new job description means two things: It could be a money maker in a more stable business than crab fishing and it could provide a platform from which to share the adventure of commercial fishing with the public.
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