The crash in Bering Sea crab stocks is translating to serious impacts for fishermen and communities across the Western Alaska coast.
A long-term decline in Bristol Bay red king crab abundance paired with an unforeseen plummet in snow crab stocks led to significant cuts in the available Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab harvest for 2022.
From the top, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is closed entirely this season for the first time since the 1990s, while the Bering Sea snow crab total allowable catch was reduced by nearly 90 percent. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service are working on a stock rebuilding plan for the snow crab, but that could take years.
In the meantime, fishermen who depend on crab are dealing with the fallout of those cuts this year. When the crabbing season began in January — red king crab fishing traditionally starts in October — boat captains had to decide whether it was worth making the trip out into the Bering Sea for such less quota than they were used to.
Gabriel Prout of Kodiak was waiting out a storm in the Akutan harbor last week, after finishing up his snow crab season. The F/V Silver Spray, the vessel he owns with his father and brothers, was only able to go out for 100,000 pounds of snow crab. Of that, they only caught about 75,000 pounds because the fishing was so slow; they traded the rest of the quota for bairdi and headed south.
Tough ice conditions also made the fishing difficult, Prout said. For the first time in many years the ice reached the northern side of St. Paul Island, and it covered up many of the spots where crab had recently been known to congregate. But even in the open spots, according to Prout, fishing was very slow.
“(We caught) 200 to 300 crab per pot on average last year,” he said. “Going back to kind of the same area this year and looking around several miles in each direction, I have to say it was fairly poor and spotty. We didn’t even have a pot of 200 crabs. I think our high pot was 180 — right around 100 keepers a pot. Not too exciting out there. Some boats went farther up north there toward the beginning in mid-January, but like we mentioned, the ice kind of covered up some of the more desirable spots.”
The Silver Spray went out to its normal fishing grounds, but not every vessel did. Prout said some of the others chose to stay behind in harbor, to save the fuel and crew pay in a year with such low quota. Others are choosing to diversify and trade quota where they can and looking for other opportunities. After finishing the crabbing season, he said the Silver Spray will be crossing the Gulf of Alaska to tender for the Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery.
“There’s definitely boats that are looking for more opportunity this year,” Prout said. “When you have your snow crab quota reduced by 90 percent ... that’s a big, big hit to these vessels out there. There’s definitely boats kind of scrambling, looking for opportunity.”
St. Paul Fishing Co. has a combination of both. The company, a subsidiary of the CDQ group Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, owns three crabbing vessels and quota in the Bering Sea crab fishery. Over time, the company — based on the small island in the central Bering Sea, with a year-round population of about 470 people — has bought up more of the crab quotas in the region, making itself economically dependent on the fate of the crab fishery.
Jeff Kauffman, CEO of St. Paul Fishing Co., said the company sent two boats out to fish snow crab this year. The quota cuts translated to one load from one boat and two loads from another. That was it.
“(The crews’) incomes were slashed very, very significantly,” he said. “We put one boat up for sale, and that put six guys out of work, which is incredibly unfortunate because those guys have worked for us for some time now.”
The company invested heavily in crab back in 2015, when it bought out Icicle Seafoods’ quota. Crab is now the most important economic resource to St. Paul. While halibut are the cash fishery and provide both food and personal income to the island, it’s crab that brings in the major money to the island. The CDQ group does hold some quota for pollock and for black cod, but not on the scale that it does with crab. Pollock saw about a 19 percent cut this year, which hurt as well, Kauffman said. The processing plant is a major employer, and the tax revenue from the landings help pay for the infrastructure and government in the community.
When the cuts were announced, leaders of St. Paul Fishing Co. and CBSFA met to discuss emergency budget cutting, working with the tribe and the community, Kauffman said. It was challenging, but the organization managed to keep its budget balanced this year, but the boats and the crews are paying for it, he said.
“One boat last year did 1.8 million pounds last year, only did 200,000 pounds this year,” he said. “Boats are expensive, insurance rates continue to climb ... everything is seemingly getting more expensive, and all of a sudden, we have a lot less revenue to make that happen.”
No one knows when or if the crab stocks will rebound, or even the reason for the decline. Researchers have said they’re reasonably certain something happened that caused a mortality event, but not entirely sure what. Until they do rebound, the fishermen and communities will have to plan around the scarcity of crab.
The loss of revenue to the local government is a major cost to the decline in the fishery as well. During the Council’s September 2021 meeting, when the crab TAC cuts were first being discussed, Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. wrote that the City of Unalaska would lose not only the fisheries landing taxes from the Bristol Bay red king crab and snow crab fisheries, but also lost taxes on fuel sales and lost wharfage revenue. At that time, when they were estimating only a 50 percent cut in snow crab, it meant $1.7 million less for the city with an operating budget of nearly $30 million.
St. Paul’s residents often fish halibut for cash and subsistence, but without crab, the island’s government and services will decline, according to Kauffman. He noted that if the fishery closes entirely or the quota becomes too small, the processing plant may not open, which would reduce economic activity on the island. The tourism sector on the island also depends on the plant, which is where the tourists who come to see birds and seals are fed and sometimes housed.
“It’s hard to imagine a day in the Bering Sea where there’s no crab fishery, and when the crab plant is completely dark,” Kauffman said. “It’s absolutely terrifying for the residents of St. Paul. This is who we’ve become and who we are and how we exist. Halibut is the most important to the people, but crab is the most important to the community.”
The Bering Sea Crabbers Association and a number of the stakeholders are working on a request for fisheries disaster relief. However, even that wouldn’t likely bring immediate help, as federal disaster declaration and relief funding can take years to arrive. Prout said streamlining that relief is one thing that would help the fishermen significantly, and they hope to see relief to help with expenses like boat payments and lost income.
He and his brothers are younger and bought into half of the fishing business with their father, who has been fishing for decades on the Bering Sea. Despite the downturn, they still have hope that the fishery will improve enough to support them in the future and provide opportunity.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity here,” Prout said. “Leading up to 2021, the snow crab quotas were looking really, really healthy. In 2019, they were seeing the biggest recruitment ever, not really sure where that went. Obviously, king crab has been on the decline for a little while. Really, it’s diversifying, going into the fishery to supplement your income, buying into those shares to boost your income a little bit. You want to get the next generation involved in this, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]