PWS Tanner crab fishery gives winter season a boost
A rejuvenated Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound is showing positive signs of finishing out its second season in 30 years.
The fishery opened for the first time since 1988 in 2017, operating on commissioners permits. A test fishery operated as an information-gathering pot fishery in the area in 2016 to a limited number of vessels. Based on Alaska Department of Fish and Game survey data, the stocks were good to go for another season this year, opening March 1 and closing either by EO or on March 31.
So far, 11 vessels have landed about 16,850 Tanner crabs, totaling about 28,699 pounds. Harvest has been better than expected in two areas, said Jan Rumble, the area management biologist for commercial shellfish fisheries in Prince William Sound. One, in federal waters off of Cape Puget, had a harvest of 14,754 pounds and the Icy Bay/Whale Bay area harvested 7,042 pounds.
“Fishing for the first week of the fishery has been more spread out than last year, and not as focused in one statistical area, with 10 statistical areas fished to date,” she wrote in an email.
Fishermen in the area are feeling fairly optimistic about the catches and catch per unit of effort so far, said Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United.
“The weather has been the biggest buzzkill,” she said. “(One fisherman has) sat out 11 days so far. It’s been hardly any fishing at all. It’s part of the game, I guess.”
There was enthusiasm on the docks when the fishermen first came in with the crab in Whittier, Seward and Cordova, she said. The catch provides a new seafood opportunity for residents before the summer fishing season kicks into gear.
It also fills in some of the space for the Prince William Sound fleet before the summer salmon season starts — there are several quiet months right now around December and January, and the salmon season doesn’t start in earnest until early May, she said.
“It sounds like right now, the fishery can keep going as long as the biomass is there,” she said.
“The fleet is seeing some smaller crabs that they are releasing back.”
Deliveries have been made in Whittier, Seward and Cordova, she said. Tanner crab, often marketed as its cousin the snow crab, is a fairly valuable product for fishermen. In 2017, the average ex-vessel price was $3.53 per pound, the highest price since 1994, according to ADFG records.
The scientific species name of Tanner crab is C. bairdi, though another species of crab — C. opilio — is also often marketed as snow crab and sold for more than $4 per pound at the dock in 2017, according to ADFG.
The commercial Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound boomed from 1968 until the late 1970s, when the catch began to decline before the fishery was closed in 1988. At its peak, fishermen brought in 13.9 million pounds, according to a March 2017 memo from Fish and Game. That was before the minimum carapace width of 5.3 inches was set, though.
By 1988, fishermen only brought in about a half-million pounds, with little to no harvest in the Eastern District because there were fewer legal males available.
The collapse of the stock could be due to overharvesting and changes in environmental conditions, according to the memo. The early fisheries on legal-size males were limited by season rather than by Guideline Harvest Level, which is the current limit set by the Board of Fisheries for Tanner crab fisheries.
“Handling mortality of undersized and female crab may have contributed to the decline, particularly during fishing seasons of seven months duration, which encompassed some of the molting and mating seasons,” the memo states. “Changes in environmental conditions, documented on a Gulf of Alaska-wide basis, may have caused high mortality of Tanner crab larvae, impaired growth and reproduction, and coincided with increased production of crab predators such as gadoid fishes.”
The fishery depends on daily call-ins from fishermen on the grounds for tracking and port sampling of the catch. At the beginning of this season, ADFG asked fishermen to call in faithfully to provide accurate information so the fishery can stay open.
In the face of less information, ADFG tends more conservative in its management in the best interest of stocks. So far, fishermen have been providing regular reports, Rumble said.
“The mandatory call-in compliance has been good and has allowed harvest and effort tracking by the statistical area; harvest has been relatively stable,” she said. “The fishery will continue to be closely monitored via the call-in reports and deliveries for the next weeks to determine if any management action is necessary.”
At this point, Fish and Game feels confident enough in its information that there are no immediate plans to close the fishery early, she said. Without early intervention from Fish and Game, the fishery will close March 31.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].