Norton Sound commercial crab fishery opens Feb. 29

A winter commercial crab fishery opens in Norton Sound on Saturday, Feb. 29, with harvesters required to set their pots through the ice and find their own markets, now that the usually largest buyer in Nome has opted out of purchasing their crab in 2020.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is going ahead, despite requests from that buyer to close the fishery in 2020, with the guideline harvest level for the winter fishery at 8 percent of the total commercial guideline harvest level, a total of 13,608 pounds.

All crabbers are required to contact ADF&G’s Nome office to register for catcher-seller or other direct marketing permits before they can sell their catch to the public.

The 2020 Norton Sound red king crab legal male biomass estimate, allowable biological catch and overfishing limit were set earlier this year by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Guideline harvest levels are set based on the legal male biomass.

Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., one of six community development quota entities organized under a special state program to boost rural economies, opted in mid-February to abstain from purchasing any crab from this fishery in 2020 because of conservation concerns. Their decision came after Charlie Lean, who chairs the Northern Norton Sound ADF&G, told the NSEDC board of many signs of a decline in reproduction of these crab.

Lean, a former ADF&G management biologist at Nome, told the NSEDC board that trawl surveys are not finding male crab, nor could commercial and subsistence harvesters, and that female crab can’t find male crab wither.

NSEDC urged ADF&G to closure the fishery for the year to preserve and strengthen the resource, but the state agency decided if harvesters could find other buyers on their own that the fishery should go ahead as planned.

The Norton Sound crab fishery has crashed three other times since it began in the late 1970s. After the last crash in 1999, it took three generations for the crab population to recover.

Regulations require those planning to participate in the commercial crab fishery to stop subsistence crabbing two weeks before the commercial season opens.