On the road from the ferry terminal to Unalaska and Dutch Harbor, two things catch your eye: concrete pillboxes and crab pots. In a nutshell, that’s the story of these twin towns on Unalaska and Amaknak Islands: the pillboxes are a violent WWII reminder of the past, while the crab pots acknowledge the important role of commercial fishing in the towns’ future.
Located at the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea, one of the world’s richest fisheries, Dutch Harbor is the only natural deepwater port in the Aleutians. More than 400 vessels call here each year from as many as 14 countries. From this industrialized port of canneries and fish-processing plants, the newly rebuilt Bridge to the Other Side arches over to the residential community of Unalaska.
The area, and Dutch Harbor in particular, shot into the limelight in 2007, when Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch (now in its 10th season) emerged as a popular TV reality show. Each week viewers tune in to watch crab boats and their crews battle four-story-high waves, icy temperatures and paralyzing fatigue, to fill their holds with a gold mine of king crab, before heading back to Dutch Harbor.
Ironically, since the dramatic crash of the king-crab fishery in 1982, it has been pollock, an unglamorous bottom fish, that has been the backbone of Unalaska and Dutch Harbor’s economy. Pollock accounts for more than 80% of all seafood processed, and is the reason the towns have been the country’s number-one commercial fishing port for the past 20 years. In 2006 Dutch Harbor set a record when 911 million lb of seafood, at an export value of $165 million, crossed its docks.
During the 1970s Unalaska and Dutch Harbor were Alaska’s version of the Wild West, with drinks, money and profanity flowing freely at every bar in town. With the crash of the king crab, the towns became more community-oriented, and with the recent drop of the pollock fishery, residents are now trying to survive another downturn in the boom-and-bust cycle of fishing.
Unfortunately, short-time visitors returning on the ferry don’t have an opportunity to soak in the color and unique character of these towns. To stay longer, you need to splurge on an expensive airline ticket. Those who do discover that a few days in Unalaska and Dutch Harbor can be a refreshing cure from an overdose of RVs, cruise ships and tour buses.