Harvesters of shellfish in the Bering Sea are facing a second year of multi-million-dollar losses with the demise of Bristol Bay red king crab, plus low surveys of snow and tanner crab. They are preparing for intense testimony Oct. 9-10 before federal fisheries managers in Anchorage.
The updated agenda for the Oct. 6-11 meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Anchorage includes Bering Sea red king crab. The topic is on the docket for Sunday, Oct. 9 and Monday, Oct. 10.
Council members will first hear reports on the Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) document, adopt acceptable biological catch (ABC) limits and overfishing limits (OFLs) and consider recommendations from its Advisory Panel and Scientific and Statistical Committee.
The SAFE document contains information on stock abundance, population trends, landings and more about coastal pelagic species. OFL or overfishing limit is an estimate of the catch level above which overfishing is occurring, while the ABC is the maximum level of catch allowed and accounts for scientific uncertainty in the OFL. Regional fishery management councils review the ABC recommended by the SSC. The council can specify an ABC below the SSC’s recommended levels, but can’t exceed it.
More than two dozen written comments have already been received by the council from a cross section of participants with financial interests in the shellfish harvest, ranging from the trade association Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC), individual harvesters and the city of Saint Paul Island to the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association (CBSFA) and Dock Street Brokers.
Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, noted in her written testimony the challenges of climate change impacting ocean temperatures and predators of shellfish. Goen urged the council to focus on what they do have control over: fishing pressure, bycatch and habitat protections. ABSC recently asked the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for emergency action to help the stock and crab habitat recover in areas known to be important to red king crab stocks. Goen said that the ABSC emergency petition to temporarily close the red king crab savings area and red king crab savings subarea to all fishing gear from January through June of 2023 would be a small step to help crab stocks in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands recover.
“The status quo approach for BSAI crab is not working,” Goen said. “We need decision-makers to find solutions that keep all sectors fishing including directed crab fisheries. Even small-scale, directed crab fisheries for bairdi (Tanner), Bristol Bay red king crab and snow (opilio) crab during these low abundance levels would be a lifeline. It’s critical to keep our businesses alive, our crews working and our markets open, if at all possible, consistent with conservation needs,” she said.
Phillip Zavadil, city manager for the City of Saint Paul, noted in his written testimony that the municipality and its some 400 residents are largely economically dependent on revenues, businesses, services and taxes associated with the snow crab and, to a lesser extent, Bristol Bay red king crab and Tanner crab processed at the Trident Seafoods plant there. The economic viability of Saint Paul is in jeopardy due to the collapse of snow crab stocks and closure last year of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, Zavadil said. The city is urging the federal fisheries council to consider directed crab fisheries for bairdi/tanner, Bristol Bay red king crab and snow/opilio crab for the 2022/2023 season to help keep the community economically afloat, he said.
Heather McCarty of the CBSFA, a community development quota group for Saint Paul Island, noted that the CBSFA has made considerable investments in crab assets, both processing and harvesting quota assets managed to promote social and economic development in Saint Paul.
“As a result of the 87% drop in the snow crab total allowable catch (TAC) from 45 million pounds to 5.6 million pounds announced in October 2021, CBSFA experienced a 65% drop in its total revenues,” McCarty said. “Based on the 2022 NOAA Fisheries summer bottom trawl survey, the historic decline in snow crab continues, and is expected to persist for some time. The BBRKC 2022 survey numbers also remain low, compounding the disaster.”
CBSFA supports the ABSC request for help on the federal and state level to create some flexibility in the system to consider the needs of fishing communities and allocations of “both overfishing restrictions and recovery benefits fairly and equitably among sectors of the fishery” while action is considered and taken to rebuild the affected crab fisheries, McCarty said.
McCarty urged flexibility to set at least some level of harvest for Bering Sea snow crab, as well as for a small fishery for Bristol Bay red king crab for the upcoming season. She also recommended alternatives to be considered for protections of key crab habitats, taking into account changes in the Bering Sea ecosystem resulting from climate change and the potential need for more responsive protected habitat areas. “Certainly, we are interested in potential methods of responding more dynamically to changing snow crab and king crab centers of population and/or mating,” she said. “More responsive management in times of change is a national conversation, and one that is of great interest to NOAA/National Martine Fisheries Service,” she said.
Aaron Overland of Dock Street Brokers also supported positions taken by ABSC.
He said it is imperative that the council take action to ensure all measures are taken to manage and protect the resource from the indirect exploitation hurting the fishery and causing significant economic injury to its stakeholders.
“The current management of the resource is harmful to all stakeholders, from crew to captain to operator to the communities and support industries invested in the fishery,” he said in his written testimony. “The commercial fishing industry losing its red king crab season and having such a minimal opilio season this past year had a ripple effect that included the processors, boat owners, fisherman and tradesmen whose companies rely on these boats being at work to feed the system. It also includes the people of the world whose food supplies have seen shortages in every category this past year.”
Complete copies of all testimony on shellfish and other issues before the federal fisheries management council at its October meeting, as well as the agenda, are online at www.npfmc.org.
The meeting will be held in person and also broadcast on Zoom.
The Zoom link is https://us06web.zoom.us/j/88671612019 and the meeting ID is
886 7161 2019.