Coming season is going for hurt for Alaska crabbers

  • In this 2015 file photo, crew with the the fishing vessel Bering Hunter stack crab pots in Dutch Harbor in preparation for commercial crab fishing in the Bering Sea. (Photo by Jim Paulin / For the Journal)

Cuts and cancellations are causing anxiety for crab fisheries.

“I’m scared,” said Simeon Swetzof, mayor of St. Paul, a central Bering Sea island with considerable crab dependence. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the 2016-17 Bairdi or tanner crab season on Oct. 5, following a 15 percent cut in the harvest quota for Bristol Bay red king crab and a 50 percent cut in the snow crab fishery.

Without intervention from the Alaska Board of Fisheries, requested by tanner crab stakeholders, the millions of pounds and millions of dollars of Bairdi will remain in the sea.

Last year, the fishery’s total ex-vessel value was $45.3 million.

Crab stocks are managed jointly between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The North Pacific council, one of eight councils that manage fisheries from three to 200 miles off the coast, sets the overfishing limits and annual catch limit for crab. ADFG then sets the total allowable catch, or TAC.

Tanner crab was one of two stocks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration charted as having a declined biomass.

In 2015, the biomass prediction for tanner crab was 163 million pounds. This year, surveys chart a drop down to a biomass of 100 million pounds.

It is the female crab that cancelled the fishery, rather than the overall biomass directly.

According to the survey, there isn’t enough female crab in the sea for the tanner crab fishery to open, despite the fact that the overall Bairdi stock itself is not overfished or experiencing overfishing, according to federal definitions.

“The 2016 area-swept survey estimate of mature female biomass (8.067 million pounds)is below the minimum regulatory threshold of 9.832 million pounds necessary for a fishery opening,” reads the announcement. “Therefore, the Bering Sea Tanner crab fisheries east and west of 166° W long will be closed for the 2016/17 season.”

This is a marked departure form last year’s increased quota. In 2015, a total of 19.67 million pounds of tanner crab was set, compared to 15.1 million pounds in 2014.

However, the crab industry thinks ADFG’s harvest policy is an outdated holdover from a stock rebuilding program that is no longer relevant.

In a Sept. 8 emergency petition to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, industry stakeholders requested that the board revisit the harvest policy so the tanner crab fishery can remain open.

Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt, St. Paul Mayor Simeon Swetzof, and Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers science advisor Ruth Christiansen signed the petition.

Among other proposed changes to the harvest policy, stakeholders argue that the Bairdi crab fishery is the only crab stock tied to the biomass of mature females, while the other stocks chart a combination of male and female.

“A female only threshold makes little sense for commercial fisheries specifically designed and executed to harvest only mature male crab,” the petition reads.

Further, stakeholders think the survey results themselves do not accurately reflect biomass, as static survey results taken during the warm summer months do not match the winter-driven catches of the mobile crab fleet, which has seen a rising amount of Bairdi crab per pot in recent years. Managers also divide the Bering Sea tanner crab fishery into eastern and western sections, which crabbers say is inconsistent

ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten denied the petition saying the situation does not meet the criteria for an emergency, which requires a conservation concern.

Christiansen sent a second letter directly to Alaska Board of Fisheries director Glenn Haight with another emergency request, appealing Cotten’s decision.

“We have yet to hear from two board members,” Haight said.

If two board members agree to take up the matter at the next board meeting in October, and if it decides to grant the petition, the tanner crab fishery could potentially open late.

If not, the fishery will stay closed for the next two years. Crab stock has to meet the minimum threshold for two consecutive years before managers can open the fishery again.

The closure comes at a time when the other main crab stocks are dropping in biomass and harvest quotas are declining.

Cuts and Quotas

Apart from an entirely canceled fishery, the other two main crab stocks have declining catch quotas.

Bristol Bay red king crab is taking a 15 percent cut.

The 2016-17 crab season, which runs from Oct. 15 through Jan. 15, will allow a total allowable catch of 8.5 million pounds, which matches the quota from 2014.

The downturn in quota ends a two-year streak of nearly 10 million pound catches. Last year, crabbers were allowed to take 9.97 million pounds of Bristol Bay red king crab. In 2014, the Bristol Bay red king crab total allowable catch, or TAC, is 9.98 million pounds. That’s up from the 2013 limit of 8.6 million pounds.

Biomass for Bristol Bay red king crab has declined. Legal size males dropped from 61 million pounds in 2015 to 53 million pounds for the 2016 season.

For snow crab, ADFG set the total allowable catch to 21.57 million pounds, nearly half the 40.6 million pounds allocated last season.

For snow crab, an allowable biological catch of 137.4 million pounds in 2015 dropped to 47 million pounds this year.

“The lower 2016/17 TAC reflects continuing declines in survey biomass for both mature male and female snow crab and the high proportion of old shell crab in the exploitable population,” reads an ADFG announcement.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

10/07/2016 - 10:44am