Even given early notice that there would be no Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, harvesters figured that more bad news was coming on the snow crab harvest quota, a staple for the commercial crab industry fishing the icy waters of Alaska.
“It has the potential to be really bad,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a trade association representing harvesters of king, opilio (snow) and bairdi (Tanner) crab in the Bering Sea. “Bering Sea snow crab abundance is down. We don’t know why.”
Goen said commercial crab fishermen were bracing for an economic hit of over $200 million if recommendations from scientists were adopted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “And that number grows once you consider impacts to processors, communities, and on up the supply chain,” she said. In the wake of the announcement that the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was being closed for the first time in 25 years, Goen also worried that the Bering Sea snow crab fishery might be reduced by about 80%.
It was worse than the crabbers anticipated.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game isn’t sure yet either of all factors related to the dramatic decline in snow crab abundance, although climate change undoubtedly has had an impact, but they are certain that there been a serious decline.
On Oct. 8, ADF&G announced a total allowable catch of 5.6 million pounds of snow crab, down 88% from the 45 million pounds approved for harvest in 2020.
ABSC had already spelled out, in a Sept. 29 letter to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, its plea to expand the Red King Crab Savings Area, or RKCSA, closure to bottom trawling to protect female Bristol Bay red king crab. The trade association also urged the council, which had the matter on its agenda this week during its virtual October meeting, to begin examining longer-term actions to boost conservation and management of all Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crab stocks, noting that mature female abundance of Bristol Bay red king crab declined by 25% from 2019 and was well below the 20-year average.
There was no Eastern Bering Sea trawl survey in 2020 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Goen told the federal council that female crabs, being in such low abundance, need further protection so that they can rebound, from the council as well as the entire commercial fleet.
“We have reached out to representatives from all sectors requesting that they avoid crab closed areas, improve their hotspot reporting alerting other fishermen on areas of crab to avoid, and use best handling practices to reduce crab mortality by limiting the amount of time crab are on deck and by gently returning them to the water,” she said.
Goen added that in directed crab fisheries, harvesters plan to explore increased mesh sizes and soak times to reduce catch of small crab and hotspot retorting to avoid areas of higher female abundance.
Crabbers are already working with other pot fisheries, such as pot cod, to reduce crab bycatch through gear design work under a NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program grant, looking at different tunnel and ramp designs on pots to keep crab out while letting cod in, she said.
Just one year ago, aware of declining abundance In the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, ADF&G’s allocation for that fishery allowed holders of individual fishing quota 5.04 million pounds of the highly prized red king crab, plus another 560,000 pounds for holders of Community Development Quota, or CDQ quota, shares. The CDQ program was established to provide eligible villages in western Alaska the opportunity to participate and invest in fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Management area, to diversify and boost their economies.
The Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab fisheries were not the only shellfish fisheries hard hit this year.
ADF&G also set a 1.1-million-pound quota for the western Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery, down from 2,348,000 pounds in 2020, while the eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery remained closed for another year. ADF&G cited results of the 2021 National Marine Fisheries Service trawl survey for the Bering Sea District Tanner crab stock that showed an estimated mature male biomass remaining below thresholds required to the fishery to open.
The western Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery will open at noon Friday, Oct. 15, and close at 11:59 p.m. on March 31, 2022.
ADF&G reminded harvesters that while commercial fishing is considered an essential business and is part of the state’s essential services and critical infrastructure that harvesters must ensure that all travel and other activities in support of their commercial fishing operations follow protocols of Alaska COVID-9 health advisories.
The Pribilof district red and blue king crab seasons, as well as the Saint Matthew Island section blue king crab season, remained closed. ADF&G said that the closure of waters surrounding the Pribilof Islands to commercial crab fishing for the season would also apply to commercial fishing for Pacific cod for use as bait in Bering Sea crab fisheries.
State biologists said that the Saint Mathew Island section blue king crab remained below federal minimum stock size limits for consequently has been declared overfished. In addition, estimates for 2021 mature male abundance are below the state harvest strategy threshold for a fishery opening, they said.