Norton Sound winter red king crab fishery sets records

The Norton Sound winter commercial red king crab fishery broke records this winter.

Crabbers took 22,639 Norton Sound red king crabs through the ice, or about 62,179 pounds, more than double the prior record of 9,625 crabs in 1977, or the 2011-12 winter season, when 9,157 crabs were caught.

Fishermen received an average of $6.74 per pound, up from $6.47 in 2011-12.

The Norton Sound red king crab winter commercial fishery is prosecuted through the ice. Fishermen usually snowmachine out onto the Bering Sea, drill through the ice, and set their pots. Then they cover them with insulated covers and check them every few days, cleaning slush out of the hole each time they do so.

“It’s a lot of toil,” said Robin Thomas, who has participated in the commercial Norton Sound red king crab fishery since it opened in 1977, although not every year.

That work of the fishery remains largely unchanged, although favorable ice conditions and more crabs near the shore aided harvests, he said.

Where the fishery changed more significantly this year was the market to sell them. Typically, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp.’s seafood plant is the only buyer in Nome.

Crab sold to NSEDC are then sold in sections. [Correction: 100 percent of the winter king crab purchased by NSEDC is sold live. The majority of larger crab harvests in the summer are sold in sections.] This winter, Thomas, got a license to act as a buyer as well. He sold the crab he bought to the live market in Korea through a buyer he found online at last year.

“I just advertised live king crab and the phone started ringing off the hook,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he has sold his crab to NSEDC since the plant opened in the 1990s, but decided to try the more profitable live market and see if he could make a go of it.

He shipped a small amount to Korea last year, and this winter opted to scale-up and sell other fishermen’s crabs along with his own, selling more crab and adding additional Korean buyers.

Norton Sound king crabs are smaller than Bering Sea crabs, but in Korea, that’s actually a plus. The ideal size is a crab that can be split between two — often people on a date — at one meal.

At a restaurant, they go for about $50 per pound, Thomas said.

Thomas brought in $439,000 from crab sold to Korea, much of which went to the crew he hired to work his crab pots, and paying the six fishermen he purchased live crab from.

Thomas paid fishermen $6.50 to $7 per pound, a price that increased through the season. He received about $8 per pound from his Korean buyer.

Thomas said he netted $13,000 in the five-month season, after covering expenses, like shipping, fish tax and other fees.

Selling live crab across the ocean requires a more complex operation, and costly, than selling it locally, Thomas said.

After connecting with his first buyer in Korea, Thomas built saltwater holding pens to contain the crabs until he had enough to ship them.

When Thomas sent out the crab, he tried to send about 300 crabs, or 1,000 pounds, at a time. That made the fees associated with shipping the crab more economical.

Getting the crab from Nome to Incheon, Korea, had to take less than 30 hours, including the flight to Anchorage, layover there and the long flight to Korea.

While in transit, the crab were wrapped carefully in Styrofoam boxes with gel ice and wet rags, but not in water.

“It’s a challenge getting those crab to Korea without dead loss,” he said.

Later in the winter, to minimize deadloss, Thomas started using a live tank service in Anchorage so that the crab could spend time in water before getting packed for the long flight. That helped, he said.

Thomas said he thought his operation and NSEDC’s complemented each other, and he credited that organization with helping keep the fishery going for the last two decades.

Two buyers helped provide good prices for the fishermen, and NSEDC continues to sell bait to all the crabbers, he said.

Plus, he was available to take crab when the plant was closed, and vice-versa, making it easier on fishermen.

The changed market dynamics were likely one reason for the increase in effort this year.

But other factors were also at play.

Thomas said the ice conditions likely contributed to the strong fishery this year.

Southern winds packed the ice in and then cold temperatures froze it solid.

“The ice was really stable,” he said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Joyce Soong agreed that northern Norton Sound ice conditions helped the fishery.

“Last year, 64 commercial pots were lost while this year, 23 were lost, even though many more pots were fished commercially this year,” Soong wrote in an email.

Not everyone in Norton Sound experienced the strong fishery. Soong said fewer crabbers fished out of southern Norton Sound, where the ice was very poor this year. Overall, there were actually fewer participants.

This winter, 26 of 34 registered fishermen reported landings, a number that was down compared to 2011-2012, when 35 of 41 registered fishermen participated.

According to Soong, availability of crab in the fishery has been stable or slightly increasing for the past 10 years. That increase in not enough to explain the increased commercial harvest, according to an ADFG biometrician Soong talked to.

However, a change in distribution under the ice could be a factor, as more crabs are concentration closer to the shore near Nome.

Thomas said there was an upswing in the fishery at the end of the season, too.

“Crabbing got really good right at the end there,” he said.

As of early June, Soong said the start date for the summer fishery was not yet set.

It can open as early as June 15 by regulation, but the actual date is often later in the month or in early July, depending on ice conditions and buyers’ readiness.

Thomas said he didn’t plan to act as a crab buyer for the summer fishery. Being responsible for other people’s crab was a challenge, and the effort had added a lot more work than just handling his own crab, he said. But he’d happily share what’s learned with other crabbers.

“I’ll give good advice, observe and suggest,” he said.

He was considering working to start a local co-operative effort to share the workload with interested fishermen, he said.  He’d also work with NSEDC if that organization wanted to take over live sales, he said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

06/17/2013 - 5:45am