King crab quota cut in half; council may collect more crew info

The highest value Alaska crab fishery is being cut in half for 2011.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its harvest quotas for all stocks other than Bering Sea snow crab Oct. 3, and the total allowable catch, or TAC, for Bristol Bay red king crab is just 7.83 million pounds.

That’s about half the 14.84 million pounds in 2010. The quota was expected to be down, and it’s clear ADFG is being highly precautionary in the face of declining trends in juvenile recruitment seen in the last few years.

For individual fishing quota holders, it’s just more than 7 million pounds with 783,400 pounds to Community Development Quota groups, who receive 10 percent of all Bering Sea fisheries quota.

For Bristol Bay red king crab, it’s the lowest harvest quota since 1988, when it was 7.38 million pounds. The fishery was closed in 1994 and 1995.

In economic terms, Bristol Bay red king crab fetched $7 per pound or more in ex-vessel value last year. Based on that price it’s about a $50 million loss at the docks, and about $94 million in lost first wholesale revenue.

Linda Kozak, of Crab Group of Independent Harvesters in Kodiak, said the quota was “pretty conservative.”

“A lot of us thought it would be closer to 8 (million) to 10 (million pounds), so there is some surprise in the industry,” Kozak said. “But we’ve known for a couple years that the trend is down for this stock, so industry has been bracing for it.”

As expected, the tanner (bairdi) crab fishery is closed for the second straight year, as it has been determined to be overfished.

A change in the tanner overfishing limit, or OFL, was announced to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and will allow a higher snow (opilio) crab quota than previously thought.

The original crab plan team report was missing an updated biomass number and would have required a cut in snow crab quota despite increasing size of the stock. The 2010-11 quota for snow crab was 54.2 million pounds.

The snow crab quota announcement was delayed until Oct. 5. Council analyst Diana Stram told the council Oct. 3 that the revised tanner OFL would allow about 30 percent more snow crab harvest than previously thought.

One bright spot in the crab TAC announcements is St. Matthews blue king crab. That TAC is up 47 percent, to 2.36 million pounds in 2011-12. Last year’s quota of 1.6 million pounds brought $5 per pound at the docks, or about $8 million in ex-vessel revenue.

The 47 percent cut in Bristol Bay red king crab quota is the largest year-to-year cut since 1992-93, when it was reduced by 53 percent. That cut foreshadowed the eventual closure of the fishery in 1994 and 1995.

Blue king crab action deferred

The North Pacific council deferred final action on a revised rebuilding plan for Pribilof Islands blue king crab at its meeting in Dutch Harbor.

A number of obstacles to taking final action arose during staff reports and public comments, most notably the uncertainty of bycatch extrapolation from the trawl fleet, bycatch estimates for unobserved Pacific cod vessels and a sharp reduction in the overfishing limit, or OFL, for Pribilof blue king crab based revised catch estimates.

The council was notified by National Marine Fisheries Service in 2009 that the stock was not on target to be rebuilt by 2014 and a revised rebuilding plan was required within two years.

There has been no directed fishery for Pribilof blue king crab since 1999, so the only mortality of the declining stock is from non-directed fisheries.

Revised catch estimates from 2011 led to a further reduction in the OFL for Pribilof blue king crab from 1.81 tons to 1.16 tons. With bycatch caps in the analysis derived from the OFL, uncertainty in bycatch rates from both unobserved and observed fisheries threatened all sectors with closures.

Exacerbating the problem is the analysis from the crab plan team that none of the alternatives under consideration is projected to rebuild the Pribilof blue king crab stock.

The preliminary preferred alternative proposed by member John Henderschedt of Seattle would close the Pribilof habitat conservation zone, or HCZ, around St. George and St. Paul to pot cod fishing, and he incorporated an option for analysis from the council Advisory Panel that would require 100 percent observer coverage on pot cod vessels fishing within the larger triggered closure area that covers the range of the stock measured between 1984-2009.

Henderschedt’s motion would set the trigger for fishing closures at 75 percent of the OFL, but would also have sector bycatch allocations that would total 120 percent of the cap (45 percent to pot cod, 45 percent to trawl and 30 percent to hook-and-line) so as to allow flexibility that would prevent one sector hitting its cap from shutting down other fisheries.

It is likely the analysis derived from Henderschedt’s motion will be taken up by the council next February, allowing for a final action.

Council may collect crew contracts

Bering Sea crab crewmen scored a victory in Dutch Harbor as the North Pacific council will analyze the benefits of collecting both contracts and settlement sheets.

Over industry objections and a majority of the Advisory Panel, the council voted 7-4 to advance the analysis in both alternatives under consideration within its broader revisions to the Economic Data Reporting program.

This is the first time the council has recognized the longstanding demand from crew advocates to consider collecting contracts and settlement sheets that would verify whether the EDR data on crew compensation is accurate.

Crew advocates have also cited lay share law as a binding requirement to collect contracts and settlement sheets, another topic that was broached — though not explicitly — by Sam Cotten of Eagle River during the council discussion.

The EDR program collects information from the Bering Sea crab fishery to measure economic impacts and patterns after it was rationalized in 2005. EDR data submitted since rationalization has shown a dramatic decline in crew compensation as a percentage of the ex-vessel value compared to historic rates.

Crewmen now receive 15 percent to 20 percent of the harvest value compared to about 35 percent to 40 percent prior to 2005. High lease rates, as high as 75 percent or more for Bristol Bay red king crab, are roundly blamed for the decline in crew compensation.

In the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, the crew who harvest the most crab are actually paid less then fellow crew who harvest as much as 155,000 pounds less, according to the five-year review of the program.

All six Alaska members and NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger voted in favor of the analysis, which was presented as an amendment by Duncan Fields of Kodiak. The four-member Pacific Northwest delegation voted against it.

Former Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Ed Poulsen told the council collecting contracts and settlement sheets was a “bad idea” and industry would not support it.

Crewman’s Association Executive Director Shawn Dochtermann said it was a “step forward.”

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

10/05/2011 - 2:26pm