May 10, 2010
Renee DeGross Valdes, 404-413-1353
It was Kurt Schnier's love of fly fishing that led him to become a resource economist and learn more about how fishermen in Alaska harvest their catch.
The associate professor of economics in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies has spent the last three years researching the risks and rewards associated with the Alaskan crab fisheries. While Alaska is as far as it gets from the fishing holes he likes to visit in the North Georgia Mountains, Schnier's studies provide him a close up view of the red king and snow crab fishing industry, an industry popularized by the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." The show follows crab crews on the deadly Bering Sea, through treacherous weather and dangerous fishing conditions.
"Fisheries are great to study from an economics perspective," said Schnier, who ironically isn't a fish eater himself. "They are excellent subjects because of the complex decision environment fishermen participate within, the financial and physical risk profiles present, and the quality of the behavioral data sets that currently exist. Fisheries provide an ideal field laboratory to study many of the central tenants of economic theory."
Schnier looked inside boat holds, observed the processing and talked to boat captains, among his research tactics. In all, Schnier looked at data both on the ground and in print from over 300 vessels. In the process, he even got to interview Phil Harris, the scruffy boat captain of the Cornelia Marie featured on "Deadliest Catch." Harris, who long battled health problems, died from a massive stroke earlier this year while offloading his catch.
"He was a very colorful character," Schnier said of Harris. "From him, I got an earful on a lot of things. He gave me the break down on risk and the recent regulatory changes within the Alaskan crab fisheries. I learned a lot about fishermen from Phil."
Given the big industry push to increase safety in the Alaskan crab fisheries, Schnier's research looked at the fatalities and the economic rewards fishermen obtained. He investigated the risk-reward tradeoffs. Using weather conditions and the implementation of new safety policies, Schnier's preliminary results indicate that fishermen make very similar risk-reward tradeoffs as the general public, despite the preconceived notion that fishermen are inherently risk loving.
Also, recent safety measures implemented by the government appear to be working to stave off deaths in the high-risk Alaskan crab fishing industry, according to his research.
"The pre-season safety boarding program implemented by the United States Coast Guard before the vessels leave port appears to be working well to save lives," Schnier said. "The risks have substantially decreased because of the program."