After season closure, board revises Tanner crab strategy
Bering Sea Tanner crab fishermen have a new harvest strategy in place, though it likely won’t be the last time the plan gets revised.
The Board of Fisheries held a special meeting in Anchorage May 17 and 18 to deal with just the harvest strategy.
Crab fishermen raised concerns about the value of the harvest strategy and survey methods after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to close the 2016-17 season because surveys showed that the biomass of female crabs in the Bering Sea survey area fell below a required threshold for the fishery to open. Fishermen, however, said they were seeing large numbers of females in their catch.
The board unanimously voted to adopt a new harvest strategy at the recommendation of ADFG staff that will revise a number of standards for calculating how the fishery will open.
Major changes include transitioning how female maturity is assessed, including the females west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in the calculation and changing the year range used to estimate long-term Tanner crab female biomass.
Fishermen raised several issues with the previous strategy’s assessment method and worked with ADFG to hash them out. The harvest strategy the board passed included a number of industry-supported suggestions but didn’t go entirely along with their recommendations.
Ben Daly, the commercial fisheries biologist who presented the staff report on the Tanner crab fishery to the board on May 17, said the department collaboratively manages the fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The council, through its Scientific and Statistical Committee, sets the overfishing limit and the acceptable biological catch limit, and ADFG sets the total allowable catch, or TAC, and manages the fishery in accordance with the plan approved by the board.
The managers have a middle amount of information about the Tanner crab fishery — more than some and less than others, Daly said. The old harvest strategy had more conservative measures programmed in when data was lacking, he said.
“The general philosophy of the department is when uncertainty is high, precautionary measures are appropriate,” he said.
Tanner crab populations have also been in decline, with a sharp change in the late 1970s in an event that biologists call a regime shift. At that time, a number of unclear factors led to a decline in crab production and an increase in fish production, Daly said.
To account for that and not skew the numbers too high for a threshold beyond what the fishery can reasonably produce, ADFG recommended adjusting the long-term data accounting from 1982–2016.
ADFG will start including female crabs west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in their calculations for female biomass, whereas in the past, only females east of the line have been included. Under the new harvest strategy, females will also be assessed for maturity based on their abdominal flaps, known as observed maturity.
The female threshold functions like an on-off switch for the fishery, which can leave fishermen completely without recourse if the survey turns out below that level.
ADFG is considering alternatives to the threshold tool, creating a scale instead, which Daly referred to as the “conservation band,” essentially providing a range of actions based on the assessment. It’s not ready for implementation yet, but the department will continue to work on it, he said.
“What we’re doing here is essentially creating a band that defines points of conservation concern,” he said. “…It would essentially turn the on-off switch into a dimmer.”
Multiple stakeholders said they favored the conservation band approach. If the fishery were not controlled by a strict threshold, fishermen who depend on the income could depend on it more year after year, said Wes Jones, the fishery development director for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., in public testimony to the board.
“Fisheries that have this on-off switch are not good for continual year after year employment,” he said. “We’re not talking these people need three months’ employment … one month works really well, it fits into their lifestyles really good.”
The Tanner crab fishery has grown significantly in the past several years with successful marketing strategies, said Tyson Fick, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association.
The closure marked a sharp halt to a fishery that had grown equally sharply.
The previous year’s Tanner crab harvest was 19.7 million pounds, an increase over the 15.1 million pounds in 2014-15, and was worth $45.3 million.
International demand has always been strong, but domestic demand has grown as well with restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster featuring Alaska bairdi Tanner crab in advertisements.
The industry has an interest in working with ADFG toward a consistent but sustainable harvest strategy, he said.
“With worldwide recognition that we are continually looking to look out for the resources and improve how we assess that resource, how we can have an industry and have a industry and protect that resource?” he said.
The board retained one part of the harvest strategy despite industry requests for it to be eliminated, known as the half-TAC penalty, which halves the total harvest if the fishery was closed the year before.
ADFG staff said the rule won’t apply to next year’s fishery because the harvest strategy changed, but recommended the board retain the rule until a better conservation tool is developed, Daly said.
However, it would only come into play when the entire threshold calculation is below the confidence interval in the calculation, which isn’t likely to happen in most years, he said.
“It’s there; we think it’s a reasonable conservation measure,” he said. “The probability of it being enacted it certainly lower. If it’s enacted, we think we have bigger concerns. It’s still there.”
Multiple board members praised the collaboration between the department and the stakeholder groups, who provided recommendations through an ad-hoc committee, on coming up with solutions for the Tanner crab fishery strategy.
Some of the other issues can be addressed at the upcoming regular cycle meeting in March 2018. For now, the strategy seems like a reasonable approach, said board member Sue Jeffrey.
“This allows more flexibility and consistency, we’ve heard a lot from … the harvesters and processors want consistency, as do the markets,” she said. “I really think that this answers a lot of those concerns. There was that short-term loss, losing a crab season is painful for everyone involved. I think through this exercise, we are on solid ground for more stability.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].