NPFMC wrestles with crab crisis

Disagreement in industry on expanding red king crab savings area

Commercial crab crews normally embarked on the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery are on the docks this October, with their fishery closed for lack of sufficient stocks, while federal fishery managers ponder how to restore the abundance required for the harvest to resume in coming seasons.

During its October meeting, held virtually because of the ongoing pandemic, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to request an analysis on likely impacts of expanding the red king crab savings area through emergency rule to shift the northern boundary from 57° 00.0’ N to 57° 30.0’ N.

The council directed staff to assess the immediate conservation benefits for female red king crab and whether an emergency rule would improve the likelihood of a directed red king crab fishery in 2022 consistent with NOAA’s emergency rule criteria. The analysis must also include an evaluation of impacts such a closure would have on red king crab and other species catches and harvests of groundfish species to the extent possible.

Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, agreed that the analysis has to be done, but is concerned about the timing.  It will be a tight fit to get a regulation implemented to expand the red king crab savings area at the council’s December meeting in time to keep groundfish fisheries, which begin on Jan. 20, off of the critical crab areas, she said.  The Amendment 80 fleet will be fishing for yellowfin sole in an area where red king crab are molting and mating in January and that concerns her, although she said she is pleased that the council has begun moving forward in efforts to help the crab.

“In the bigger picture, we believe that fixed closures areas are not the best approach to reduce bycatch of prohibited species that are moving in response to changing environmental conditions,” said Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, where he is responsible for promoting fishery regulation policies.  Woodley, a retired Coast Guard captain, said the Groundfish Forum is concerned with the ABSC request to increase the existing fixed closure area based on National Marine Fisheries Service summer 2021 survey.

Red king crab typically move seasonally and appear to be moving more now in response to rapidly changing environmental conditions, he noted. Red king crab distribution next January could be quite different than the summer survey, and if the proposed closure north of the red king crab savings area is in place it could actually force the flatfish fisheries to an area with more red king crab, possibly as well as halibut, than would otherwise be the case, he noted.

In the staff tasking section of the council meeting, testifiers included commercial harvester Jim Stone, who is a member of ABSC as well as the Bering Sea pot cod coop.

Stone said he does not allow his boat, the Polar Sea, to fish on the bottom where king crab live, but that many others in the pot cod fleet do not share his feelings.

“The large amount of king crab bycatch by the pot cod fleet for the past five years or so could have been completely avoided by not fishing on the king crab grounds,” he told the council. “Those pot cod boats fish in the near shore no trawl area and the red king crab savings area. They are both prolific with king crab.”
Stone said he recommended an emergency closure to pot cod fishing in the near shore no trawl area and red king crab savings area at a minimum. “The emergency closure really should be all bottom east of Amak Island,” he said. “A voluntary standdown on the red king crab savings area is not enough.  It must be on all king crab bottom. This bycatch problem also highlights the need for a pot cod catch share program, with strong bycatch limits to encourage avoidance of all species of low abundance.”

Ed Poulsen, a quota share owner in the Bering Sea crab fisheries who is also part owner of two Bering Sea crab boats, had a different perspective.

The closure of the red king crab fishery and impact on snow crab fisheries appears to be environmentally driven and is not likely due to the directed fishery or bycatch as far as the decline of crab, he said.

Having said that, all removals should be considered for both stocks, because unfortunately now every crab does matter, he said.

“I would love to see every sector voluntarily make efforts to reduce their bycatch of crab and reduce potential of mortality, or institute emergency measures,” he said. “The recent bycatch of red king crab in pot cod fisheries is disturbing. This is not the first time this has happened and there is too much effort around known abundance of red king crab. I believe this sector can catch plenty of pot cod if they concentrate their fishing west of Amak and volunteer to close fishing east of there.”

Poulsen said he would encourage the Amendment 80 sector to expand the red king crab savings area 30 nautical miles north.  “This seems to be an area of female red king crab congregation recently.

Ideally a winter survey would occur next year to identify areas of red king crab abundance so the trawlers can voluntarily stay out of these areas.”

Poulsen added that he would like to see the Pollock industry also voluntarily stay out of the red king crab savings area, and he would ask both sectors to work with the crabbers and NMFS on unobserved mortality of red king crab.

As for the demise of snow crab abundance, Poulsen said he is very uncomfortable with the level effort of the Pollock factory trawler fleet in the B season in relation to areas of high abundance of male and female snow crab. “The fact that these vessels fish in areas of high abundance of snow crab with nets on the bottom at times and have no bycatch makes me scratch my head,” he said. “There is simply no accounting for this.”

Poulsen encouraged the council to incentivize the trawl sectors that there are potential unobserved mortality risks to crab, particularly during times of molting. The status quo, he said, “does not work anymore.”