COMMENTARY: Snow crab season gets under way; fleets still trying to beat bycatch

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery is picking up steam earlier than usual as the fleet scrambles to get the catch before rapidly encroaching sea ice shuts them down. About 25 boats are out on the water so far, soon to be joined by 60 or so more as the forecast calls for continued frigid weather and high winds.

Although the fishery opens by regulation Oct. 15, most crabbers usually wait until mid-January to begin dropping pots. The snow crab catch was boosted 64 percent this season to nearly 90 million pounds. Boats left without settling on a price, and the increased supply is having a downward press on the market.

“The problem we have in the snow crab market is that before the catch share program began in 2005, the fishery started on the 15th of January, and so that is when the market formed and negotiations were typically done about a week before. Although the fishery has been starting earlier and earlier, the negotiations are still taking place at the traditional time period. There’s negotiations taking place between the packers and the Japanese and domestic buyers as we speak,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents a majority of the crab fleet.

There also is a sizeable chunk of Canadian snow crab in the freezers that buyers are trying to sell before that fishery begins in April. Jacobsen said it all adds up to lower crab prices.

“Because of the increased quota, the demand has diminished so we expect prices to be lower than last year’s average of $2.41 a pound. We’re looking at a considerable reduction from that,” Jacobsen said. 

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery last year produced 54 million pounds valued at more than $120 million at the docks. Jacobsen said crabbers are hoping for another uneventful fishery this year, adding: “Pray for warm weather and we get the crab in and we keep everybody safe. That’s the main thing.”

The largest Alaska snow crab harvest was 252.1 million pounds in 1998. The fishery ends by regulation in mid-May. 

Beating bycatch

Bycatch in fisheries is not only bad for the resources; it’s also bad for business. For decades fishermen have sought ways to avoid the hassles of unwanted catches that slow down their operations. A case in point: west coast shrimpers trying to avoid Pacific whiting. 

“These fishermen designed excluder devices 50 years ago in trawl nets to lower their sorting costs. So fishermen have been grappling with this for a long time, and it not just the result of regulations,” said Gil Sylvia, a marine resource economist at Oregon State University’s Marine Experimental Station at Newport. 

Sylvia claims that changes need to be made jointly by policy makers and industry stakeholders that create incentives to avoid bycatch.

“The solution is to co-develop rights based systems, which is where we are heading on the West Coast, and market based performance standards that create the long-term rewards for industry to discover incentives,” Sylvia told KDLG in Dillingham. “So who is going to create and implement the bycatch and discard solutions that are going to lower costs and increase profits for industry and reward the best fishermen. That is the issue.”

Another case in point: The fleet of 98 Bering Sea shore based pollock boats, fishing in six cooperatives, created IPAs, or incentive plan agreements, to keep Chinook salmon bycatch less than a 60,000 hard cap set by fishery managers. Incentives include rewards and penalties for individual vessels, which can also earn salmon savings credits.

“How you earn those credits is for every three fish below the base cap that a vessel avoided in a year, it would earn a savings credit. Those credits would be saved in an account and last over a five-year period,” explained John Gruver, inter co-operative manager of United Catcher Boats, a trawl trade group.

The Bering Sea fleet also relies on a website that lets them track catch data quickly. 

“We have a secure web site that each co-op can go to and make transfers, and see how all their vessels stand, and check on other co-ops, and more importantly, check on themselves,” Gruver added.

NOAA Fisheries data show that Chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery last year totaled 25,400 fish. That compares to 121,000 salmon taken as bycatch five years ago.

Smart Gear winners

Creating fishing gears that prevent bycatch is the impetus behind the international Smart Gear competition, sponsored bi-annually by the World Wildlife Fund.

The 2011 winner of both the $50,000 grand prize and a special $7,500 “tuna prize” was the captain of a Japanese tuna vessel for his Yamazaki Double-Weight Branchline. The gear works by increasing the sinking rate of fishing gear, making it more difficult for seabirds to chase baited hooks. Used in conjunction with other devices it can reduce seabird mortality by almost 90 percent.

Two runners up, each receiving $10,000, include the SeaQualizer, designed to reduce fish mortality in the recreational fishing industry; and the Turtle Lights for Gillnets that reduced sea turtle interactions up to 60 percent without affecting target catch rates or catch value. (See more at

Film subsidies head south

Alaska provides tax breaks and subsidies to lure film crews to Alaska, and that includes the state’s most popular fishing program: Deadliest Catch. The program’s subsidy total for the past two seasons was about $1.4 million. (Earlier seasons of the show predated the film and TV subsidy program.)

The publicity is priceless, but there hasn’t been much direct return to Alaska. According to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a heavily redacted state document it acquired claims that 10 full-time equivalent jobs were created by Deadliest Catch filming, but no answer was given for wages nor the “average duration” of the jobs.

For all Alaska film productions so far, nearly $14 million has been paid out as transferable tax credits. The News-Miner said the state has refused to release details on how much film crew money is spent in Alaska or paid to residents on productions it subsidizes.  

Exchange rates, Chile change markets

High prices for many Alaska seafood items in recent years have been driven by a weak U.S. dollar prompting stronger demand by foreign customers. That may now be changing, cautions market expert John Sackton, and the strengthening value of the dollar could be a wild card in U.S. seafood prices this year. Sackton points to Bloomberg’s index of the U.S. dollar against six major currencies that clearly show a strengthening trend has set in.

“This could have a big impact on seafood prices, as it would make the U.S. market more attractive for exporters, and potentially lead to more supply,” Sackton said. “If the Japanese yen weakens and the dollar strengthens, it could have an unexpected impact on species such as snow crab. This is now a new risk factor that has to be taken into account.”

(Japan is usually Alaska’s No. 1 seafood customer, but dropped to No. 2 behind China in 2011.)

For salmon, supplies in Japan have switched from a shortage to an excessive supply last year, Sackton said. One reason: Chile.

Japan’s salmon imports saw remarkable growth last year because of coho shipments from Chile. On the other hand, supply of North American salmon, primarily sockeye, weakened  because of increased reds from Russia, and the bulk of salmon fillets from Chile, according to industry reports from Japan. In late 2011, prices of frozen salmon in Japan dropped in anticipation of a rapid increase of Chilean coho supplies early this year.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit for more information or contact [email protected].

01/12/2012 - 9:52am