Bristol Bay red king crab harvest is a wrap

Commercial harvesters have wrapped up the 2019 Bristol Bay red king crab season, with the average crab in the 3,797,000-pound quota weighing in at 7.1 pounds, the highest average weight dating back to 1973.

Fifty-five participating vessels made a total of 114 landings as of Nov. 20, said Ethan Nichols, assistant area manager for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands.

Nichols noted that state biologists have seen average weights of crab caught in this fishery increasing for several years now, which is a matter of some concern.

“We think we are fishing on the same group of adult male crab who are a year older and heavier,” he said.

If there were a better mix of small crab coming into the system, harvesters would be seeing a lower average weight of their catch, but the crab being caught are mostly large older males.

Bottom fish in general, including Pacific cod and skate, will prey on small juvenile red king crab and likely part of the issue at hand is predation by bottom fish, he said.

Biologists have also noted higher water temperatures on the ocean bottom due to changes in the environment.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around climate change in the Bering Sea,” Nichols said.

The 2019 quota for Bristol Bay red king crab was also down 12 percent from the 4.3 million pounds in the 2018 fishery. That quota has been declining since the 2014 season, when it was set at nearly 10 million pounds. The highest quota on record since 2005 was 20 million pounds in the 2007 and 2008 fisheries.

The catch per unit effort (CPUE), or per pot, is 15.6 crab this year, the lowest since crab rationalization went into effect in 2005, although for much of the season that CPUE was hovering around 14 crab, which is relatively low for Bristol Bay red king crab stocks, he said. For the last two seasons, the CPUE average was 20 crab per pot.