`The Last Frontier of the Last Frontier'
UNALASKA, ALASKA — ROBERT ALEX peers anxiously through the mob that jams the tiny airport for some sign of his new employer. Westward Seafoods hired him in Seattle the day before to cook at its brand-new $70 million plant. ``It'll be all right. It had better be,'' he says, clutching the Bible he carried all the way from Seattle to this Aleutian island.
Fresh off a plane from Kelso, Wash., young Frank Hickman expects to pull down $20,000 in four months on an at-sea fish processor. Island veterans are skeptical: They say there are better ways to make money in this town of 3,100, which has seen at least $250 million in construction in the past three years and expects $150 million in building projects this year.
Maps in the dining room of the Barge Inn, a hotel made from trailers anchored on a docked barge, often shock new arrivals seeking work in the booming Bering Sea fisheries. ``I have kids who come up here and say, `Where am I?' '' says manager Dennis Miranda.
On Channel 8, the local public television station, the weekly news broadcast closes with the island's top 10 pickup lines. The No. 1 icebreaker for the overwhelmingly male town?: ``Even if we were in Seattle, I'd still be attracted to you.''
Shortly after midnight, lights flash through the smoky haze in the Elbow Room, a beachside bar packed with rowdy crab fishermen. The reason? To stop a fight that almost no one would otherwise notice, explains a middle-aged waitress sporting a Harley-Davidson jacket.
Welcome to the last frontier of the Last Frontier.
``It's as close to Dodge City as you're ever going to get,'' says Paul Fuhs, who just resigned as mayor of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor to become Alaska's director of business development.
After five years as mayor of the town that in 1989 became the nation's top-volume fishing port, Mr. Fuhs knows plenty about exponentially expanding business developement.
Since 1987, the population here has more than doubled, to about 3,100 from 1,354. Officials estimate that some 18,000 to 30,000 transients - including fishermen, processor workers, construction workers, and cargo shippers - pass through the town annually. The transient population makes Unalaska something of a remote United Nations frontier outpost, with Russians, Poles, Vietnamese, South Americans, Filipinos, and others helping set the furious business pace.
The bottomfish boom is the latest major jolt to this mountainous island, a traditional population center for the seafaring Aleuts who saw colonization by the Russians in the 1700s and a two-day bombing by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1942.
Some 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, Unalaska is the second largest of the Aleutian Islands that curve in a chain toward Siberia and are usually deleted from US maps.
``Ounalaska'' was known by the Aleuts as ``the cradle of storms,'' but when the weather calms, the volcanic island can be a dazzling jewel of emerald-green grasses and fuchsia island flowers. It is best known for its the harbor, which got its name when Captain James Cook spotted a Dutch ship anchored there in the 1700s. In World War II it was crowded with US troops stationed there to fight the Japanese.
Now fortune-hunters are drawn to the island. Just about every inhabitable building - including a one-time dog pound that a city worker is converting into a normal home - is inhabited.
The acute housing shortage means high-paying jobs go begging. ``There's more jobs than there are people. There's more people than there are houses,'' says assistant city manager Glenn Reed.
Locals who characterize the factory trawlers and crabbing catcher-processors as floating sweatshops complain that the companies turn crew members loose in town, sometimes fired, without plane tickets home or cash - and certainly without lodging.
They also complain that the factory trawl and catcher-processor fleets, operating outside the three-mile zone where local and state taxes are levied, do little to share the burden of social costs - such as drug- and alcohol-related crime.
But locals say the real lawlessness occurs at sea, where the fisheries are nearly impossible to police. Even though the Unalaska-centered fisheries account for a third to a half of Alaska's annual seafood catch, the only agency with a permanent presence in Unalaska to enforce fisheries regulations is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Overseeing just the shellfish harvests, the department has had its hands full with enforcement duties this year. After some 60 vessels were found with illegal catches, the department closed the harvest for one valuable crab species in late March.
Pleas for a visible US Coast Guard and National Marine Fisheries Service presence here are growing.
Unalaska, meanwhile, is trying to cope with its population explosion on land. Construction is expected this summer on a much-desired hotel, shopping mall, and business complex. City Councilman Dennis Robinson says he expects Unalaska's population to grow soon to 10,000, enough to justify major infrastructure and utility expansions.
The city has its intellectual side. Nicky's, touted by owner Abi Woodbridge as America's farthest-west bookstore, provides a cultural oasis for fishing crew members who want to study 200-year-old paintings from the Russian colonial era, gaze at modern Alaska art, or discuss philosophy.
But some say town has gotten too civilized already. Among those is Joseph Patron, a grizzled taxi company owner who came here 15 years ago when the island had just 350 people.
``I liked the old way better, because now you've got too much politics involved,'' he said, steering his taxi van toward ``The Bridge to the Other Side,'' the official name of the decade-old span that links downtown Unalaska with the new industrial sites.
Mostly, he says dislikes the new emphasis on refinement and pines for the old raucousness of the portside fishermen.
``It's just another town now.''