Crab harvests set: Kings still in decline, snow and Tanner see bump

  • Crab pots are loaded on the fishing vessel Bering Hunter at the Carl E. Moses Boat Harbor in Unalaska. Quotas for the 2020-21 crab season were announced this month and pots can drop on Oct. 15. (Photo/Jim Paulin/For the Journal)

This year has brought little good news for commercial fisheries, but the commercial crab fishermen in the Bering Sea are getting some in the form of some increased catch limits.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2020-21 total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Bering Sea snow and bairdi Tanner crab, and Bristol Bay red king crab on Oct. 1. While the red king crab TAC slid downward again in the continuation of a long-term decline, the snow crab TAC ticked up significantly. A portion of the bairdi crab fishery will also be open again after being closed for the 2019-20 season.

Commercial fishermen will be allowed to harvest a total of 45 million pounds of snow crab from the Bering Sea waters this year, with 4.5 million of that set aside for Community Development Quota groups and the rest for individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holders. That’s about 34 percent larger than the limit last season, which was also an increase over the previous year. Bering Sea Crabbers Association Executive Director Jamie Goen said that’s good news for the fleet.

However, members of the fleet also think that TAC could have been a lot higher had the National Marine Fisheries Service been able to conduct its regular surveys. The federal surveys were canceled this year due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, and so the fishery managers weren’t able to get as much data as usual to make their limit decisions. When faced with a lack of information, fishery managers generally default to conservative management.

Goen said this emphasizes the importance of data to the fisheries.

“We think there is a 30-year high of (snow) crab out there,” she said. “We’re pleased with this year’s TACs… to me, (this year) stresses the importance of these surveys.”

The Western Bering Sea bairdi crab fishery availability is good news, too. Last year, low survey numbers for mature female biomass in the fishery triggered a closure, despite fishermen saying they were seeing plenty of crab.

The Board of Fisheries tweaked the management plan for bairdi, also known as Tanner crab, in the Bering Sea earlier this year, and the fishery is set to open in the Western district with a quota of about 2.4 million pounds, with 234,800 of those set aside for CDQ groups. The fishery in the Eastern district of the Bering Sea will remain closed this season, as will the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab fishery.

The Board of Fisheries met just before the pandemic began in March and adjusted the management plan for the bairdi crab fishery to address the issue with the fishery triggers.

“It was a great process,” Goen said. “They figured out how to create more stability in our fishery.”

That TAC is still significantly lower than some of the higher limits between 2014-18, according to a report from the National Marine Fisheries Service to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. NMFS noted that the mature male biomass in the Bering Sea bairdi fishery is still declining, and is “approaching the very low levels seen in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.”

Discard mortality is significant in both the bairdi and snow crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. According to reports provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for its Oct. 2 meeting, the most recent recorded discard mortality in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was 33 percent of the total retained catch, the highest fraction on record. There wasn’t any bycatch of bairdi crab in the directed fishery last year because it was closed, but significant amounts of bairdi are regularly caught as bycatch in the snow crab, groundfish, and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries.

Bristol Bay red king crab harvests remain in decline. The TAC for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is set at approximately 2.6 million pounds, down about 1 million pounds from last year’s TAC of 3.7 million pounds. The fishery has been consistently seeing low recruitment, with mature biomass trending downward since 2009, though the 2020 biomass estimates are slightly higher than last year, according to a report provided to the NPFMC from Fish and Game biologists. The exact reason for the long-term decline isn’t certain, but it’s unlikely to bounce back at this rate to the highs seen in the 1970s.

“Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.”

Goen said this isn’t surprising to the fleet, and many of the boats that participate in the red king crab fishery also participate in the snow crab and tanner crab fisheries. The Bering Sea Crabbers Association represents about 70 percent of the crabbers in the region.

The crab fisheries are set to open on Oct. 15. What remains to be seen is how the vessels and processors manage the fishery under COVID-19 mitigation protocols. Commercial fishermen and processors all over the state scrambled in March to put together mitigation plans for the virus, looking for ways to control it in the normally cramped conditions aboard vessels and in processing plants.

A number of processing plants around the state reported outbreaks among workers over the summer, but the number of cases tapered off over the summer. In Bristol Bay, coordinated response from the fleet and processors led to control of the pandemic and prevention of spread to the surrounding villages.

Goen said COVID-19 mitigation is at the forefront of crabbers’ minds as they get ready to head out on the water. Some have had a head start at mitigation from tendering during the salmon season, as have the processors, but there are still issues to work out. Staffing has been a major issue for processors this year, for example.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

10/14/2020 - 9:33am