Council asks industry for recommendations on Bristol Bay red king crab

After the first season closure for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in decades, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is seeking more data on how to rebuild the stock and stabilize the fishery.

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is historically one of the most valuable in the state, but for the last decade, the stock has been declining. Last fall, surveys showed that the female biomass of the stock had fallen below acceptable levels for harvest, and managers closed it. Stakeholders have been working with the council since to try to identify the best paths forward to rebuild the fishery and improve scientists’ understanding of how crab are moving and reproducing in the area.

At the April NPFMC meeting, the council members approved a motion to ask the industry to come back with a list of voluntary actions harvesters and other industry stakeholders can take to help reduce bycatch of Bristol Bay red king crab and reduce discard mortality in the directed fishery. Industry stakeholders include not just the directed harvesters in the red king crab fishery, but also reach to the Pacific cod sector, pollock, and Amendment 80 fleets, which impact red king crab stocks based on area and bycatch rates.

Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a representative for the state to the council, said the industry recommendations would come back by October. Baker’s motion also asks the council staff to expand the discussion paper to include a number of additional scientific aspects, including analysis of the impacts of seasonal closures to pelagic trawl, groundfish pot, and longline gear within a portion of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishing area called the Red King Crab Savings Area and a table for all sources of mortality for the crab across federal fisheries.

Baker said there is a general recognition that more scientific information will be necessary to consider items like rolling or seasonal closures to protect mature female red king crab, which was proposed as a solution, and for the council to adequately weigh the costs against the benefits.

“We know we lack information related to distribution of red king crab,” Baker said. “There is ongoing work … that you’ve heard about, and the state is a partner in that.”

The directed harvesters are already taking on some voluntary measures to help reduce their discard mortality—essentially, the crab that are not kept because they are not of legal size but die anyway. Jaime Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, told the council at its meeting on April 9 that the harvesters are working with the other sectors to do the same, prioritizing protecting females, prioritizing mating opportunities, and protecting critical habitat.

The reason for the stock decline in Bristol Bay is not entirely clear, with some looking to warming ocean temperatures while others point to fishery factors like bottom-trawl impact and bycatch. Goen asked the council to consider options they know they can control, such as adaptive management measures.

“This stock is clearly and immediately in need of greater conservation and management,” she said.

In their public comment to the council, the ABSC noted that the pot cod fleet voluntarily stayed out of the red king crab savings area and the subareas during the A season, both of which are important for red king crab. For the long-term, the association asked for the council to ban pelagic trawling entirely from the red king crab savings area and to prohibit all gear except longlines from that area when the directed fishery is closed. ABSC also asked for management measures like dynamic closures, protecting additional areas near Amak and Unimak islands from fishing impacts, and requiring pelagic trawl gear to be on the bottom no more than 10% of the time, among other measures.

This season has been a hard one for many crabbers. Between the closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery and nearly 90% cut to the snow crab quotas in the Bering Sea due to poor survey numbers, the ABSC estimates that the industry lost about $200 million in revenue. While some crabbers say they understand the reason, it doesn’t lessen the impact. Siri Dammerell, a crabber, told the council her family has had to take on additional jobs and dip into their savings to make it through.

“The cancellation of king crab hit us hard, and the lowering of (snow crab) hit us more,” she said. “We understand that there’s a need for rebuilding the BBRKC and urge you to act now, before it is too late.”

The discussion paper released by the council for the April meeting outlines four areas of further consideration: Bristol Bay red king crab molting and mating, red king crab boundaries, bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear, and flexible spatial management measures in the fishery. The actual distribution of red king crab in Bristol Bay seems to be shifting to the north, according to the most recent survey data from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, including to some areas outside the current boundaries of the normal survey.

The science is not settled as to whether those crab are actually Bristol Bay red king crab, though, or another stock, according to the discussion paper. The AFSC, Fish and Game, and the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation are working together on new tagging techniques to help understand the stock distribution and movement outside the normal summer trawl survey period, according to the discussion paper.

The council accepted Baker’s motion and plans to hear back from the industry at the October meeting. Council member Kenny Down recognized that six months for feedback is not very long, and also recognized that the need for action in the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is urgent.

“It’s not the decisions that we make that are going to haunt us — it’s the indecision,” he said. “Eventually, I do see that we’re going to have to make some hard decisions here regarding BBRKC, and potentially snow crab, as well.”

The council is scheduled to meet again in June.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/27/2022 - 9:54am