Bristol Bay red king crab harvest halted for 2021-22

Declining abundance of female crab prompted closure of multi-million-dollar fishery

For the first time in over 25 years, the celebrated Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is closed for the season due to an inadequate abundance of mature females.

The announcement on Friday, Sept. 4 came as a surprise to many in the crab industry, even those aware of the downward trend in female red king crab since 2012, and a downward trend in Bering Sea snow crab abundance.

“We appreciate that ADF&G is giving early notice that we are not going to have a fishery,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

This news, on one hand, shows “sustainability in action,” she said, in that the closure is to help rebuild stocks. On the other hand, such news “is incredibly disappointing and concerning,” she added.

Further action should have been taken already to help crab stocks rebound, she said.

The crab plan team is scheduled to meet from Sept. 13-16, and to give its full report to the North Pacific council during its virtual October meeting.

According to a NOAA survey report the total mature male biomass of commercial crab stocks in the eastern Bering Sea in 2021 was the lowest on record and 2021 biomass estimates continued a declining trend that began in 2015. The decline in crab biomass and abundance was most notable for snow crab, with abundance estimates for mature male and female snow crab down 55% and 70% respectively, the report said.

Declines in immature snow crab abundance had been noted on the 2019 survey, and 2021 abundance estimates for immature males and females showed 96% and 99% declines respectively, from 2018 values, the report noted.

Goen noted that the crab industry had urged federal fisheries managers earlier for more research, and in fact had submitted comments in February to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council regarding concerns over unobserved and unaccounted mortality of crab bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act’s National Standard 9 on bycatch defines unobserved mortality as “fishing mortality due to an encounter with fishing gear that does not result in capture of fish,” ABSC said in its comments to the council.

The crabbers said they suspect that the impact of this unobserved mortality has the potential to be significant, “particularly from mobile gears like pelagic and non-pelagic trawl gear, due to the benthic nature of crab species and their inability to quickly move out of the way.”

“Such unobserved mortality is currently unaccounted for in total mortality estimates for stock assessments or in bycatch/prohibited species catch management, and we know the number is greater than zero,” crabbers told the council in their February comments.

Snow crab is down as well, and with no king crab the closure is expected to be devastating for crab harvesters. “This is an $80 million to $100 million take, if snow crab is down 50% and red king crab is closed,” Goen said.

“For snow crab, this is the largest recruitment failure we’ve seen and we need to understand what happened, especially given that just a few years ago we were seeing the largest recruitment event in the history of the snow crab fishery,” ABSC said in a statement on Tuesday, Sept. 7. “It’s not just a problem for this year. Our future looks bleak with low recruitment now in all crab fisheries. And with these drastic changes come changes in the market supply.  Alaska crab is known for being a premier product. Many markets prefer Alaska crab but losing those markets to foreign production is difficult to get back.”

For most crab fishermen, crabbing is the primary source of income.

“It is really difficult to see this happen to the industry for red crab, especially for those who depend on it as a source of their income,” said Gabriel Prout, a third-generation crab harvester on the F/V Silver Spray. “We had hoped the Bristol Bay red king crab stocks would have rebounded by now, after several years of reduced and conservative harvest levels, but that is simply not the case. “Coupling this closure with the fact that snow crab harvest levels could be reduced as well, even after positive levels of recruitment in previous years, has the makings for a very frustrating and trying time for crab fishermen and the industry as a whole.”

In April, Public Employees for Environmental Protection filed a complaint on behalf of former NOAA Fisheries biologist Braxton Dew, charging the federal fisheries agency with paving the way for collapse of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery by engaging in sampling bias and data falsification which inflated annual population estimates. PEER contends that this led to a multi-year regime of overfishing.

NOAA Fisheries had attributed the sudden loss of millions of crabs to “a drastic increase in natural mortality” and “massive die-offs,” claims for which no evidence has materialized, the PEER complaint said. PEER also contends that NOAA ignored massive indirect fishing mortality associated with record fishing harvests. NOAA Fisheries classified such ancillary deaths caused by fishing as natural mortality and never admitted that overfishing was occurring or that today’s nearly depleted stock was ever overfished, the PEER complaint said.

“We have not gotten a formal response that they even received it,” said Jeff Ruch, Pacific director for PEER. “That’s the first time that has happened. And our headquarters is a block away from NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, MD.”

PEER did receive acknowledgement from the post office that the complaint was delivered first by certified mail, and then by registered mail, he said.

“I don’t know what else we could have done except send smoke signals,” he said.