Federal shutdown could keep crab fishermen on the docks


Alaska’s crab fisheries could be a casualty of the government shutdown.

All crab seasons officially open Oct. 15, but as of Oct. 8, the National Marine Fisheries Service did not have the staff to issue permits before the season started.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, announced the total allowable catch, or TAC, for Bering Sea tanner crab and Bristol Bay red king crab Oct. 4, and for Bering Sea snow crab on Oct. 8.

Although all seasons open Oct. 15, Bristol Bay red king crab are the first to be targeted, with snow and tanner crab taken starting in January.

The 2013 catch for Bristol Bay is up compared to 2012, while the snow crab quota took a hit again. The tanner crab fishery will reopen this year after several seasons of closures due to concerns about the stock.

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has a TAC of 8.6 million pounds, up from 7.85 million pounds in 2012. The snow crab quota is down for the second year in a row, with a TAC of 53.9 million pounds. That’s a drop from 66.35 million pounds in the 2012, and nearly 89 million pounds in 2011.

ADFG set separate TACs for the eastern and western Bering Sea Tanner crab stocks, with 1.46 million pounds allocated for the eastern side, and 1.64 million pounds allocated for the west.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Mark Gleason said he was pleased about the tanner crab announcement.

“The red crab is up a bit, snow crab is down a bit,” Gleason said. “I was a little surprised by each of the numbers.”

Without NMFS staff to issue permits for the crab fisheries, however, those numbers won’t mean much.

Due to the shutdown, Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger said the agency did not have staff to issue individual fishing and processing quota to fishery participants.

At its October meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council accepted overfishing limits and acceptable biological catches from its crab plan team. Under the joint state-federal crab management, the state must set its total allowable catch, or TAC, limits below the federal overfishing limit using various buffers to account for uncertainty in the stock assessments.

After the state sets the catch limit, NMFS is responsible for issuing individual fishing and processing quotas.

Balsiger said he has limited staff to monitor and close fisheries to prevent overharvest, because that’s considered a defense of property, but no one is able to open fisheries.

During calls about the shutdown with the Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and NMFS, Balsiger has asked for additional staff to issue quota.

“Each day I register more and more frustration,” Balsiger said Oct. 8, after the council meeting ended.

Gleason said the delay is a concern for the crab industry. Moorage fees and other costs accumulate when the boats can’t leave the docks.

“The longer the shutdown keeps going, the greater the impact to us,” Gleason said.

NMFS is not responsible for the Community Development Quota fisheries, however, and in its announcements ADFG has said that those fisheries will open as scheduled. Six groups representing 65 Western Alaska villages receive a combined 10.7 percent of the crab quotas.

Bristol Bay red king crab fishery hit by shutdown

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will take one of the biggest hits if the shutdown continues, despite an uptick in quota this year.

“We rely quite a bit on the holiday market for that red king crab,” Gleason said.

Japan is a primary buyer for the Bering Sea red king crab, and the product needs to be caught, processed and on the boat by mid-November to get it to market in time.

“It’s a fairly narrow window,” Gleason said.

When the fishery does open, it could be a strong year.

The fishery has a TAC of 8.6 million pounds, up from 7.85 million pounds in 2012. The increase is based on the state’s abundance and biomass estimates, and the limit is still well below the acceptable biological catch, or ABC, which the plan team set at 14.02 million pounds.

At an average projected 2013 first wholesale price of $18.38 per pound according to the council stock assessment, that extra quota could be worth about $13.7 million.

This year’s Bristol Bay red king crab price is about 22 percent higher than 2012, and closer to 2011’s recent record high.

Snow crab quota drops

Fishermen targeting Bering Sea snow crab generally don’t start until January, so the shutdown may not have as great of an impact, but when they do they’ll be faced with a smaller catch than last year.

According to the stock assessment, the 2013 first whole price is forecast at about $5.48 per pound, which means the decrease in quota could be worth about $68 million to processors and around half that to harvesters.

The federal overfishing limits and ABC for the snow crab actually increased compared to the 2012 levels, but the state set a lower TAC based on the survey results, said Heather Fitch, an area management biologist for ADFG.

The state must set a TAC below the ABC, but is not required to set it a certain amount below the federal number.

The survey showed a decline in both the mature male and female biomass compared to prior years, Fitch said.

The model the federal crab plan team uses to set the overfishing limit and ABC showed an uptick in biomass, despite the observed survey decline. That could be because of smaller crab that were seen in the survey in years past and expected to join the exploitable biomass, but have not yet appeared in more recent surveys.

“We didn’t use the full model this year because it’s hanging onto that and showing the increase,” Fitch said.

She said this wasn’t the first year the model has predicted a healthier stock than is seen on the grounds.

Last year, the state set a lower TAC than the federal ABC allowed for in part because such a large portion of the stock was old shell crab.

The old shell crab problem has persisted, and is still influencing the stock.

Tanner crab fishery reopens

Last year, federal scientists qualified the tanner crab fishery as rebuilt, but the state opted not to open it. It was closed for two years prior, as well.

Fishermen prosecuting the tanner crab fishery, however, will be limited by extra area closures to protect the Pribilof Islands blue king crab stock, which is closed again this year.

ADFG also announced Oct. 2 that the Pribilof Islands red and blue king crab and St. Matthew Island blue king crab will be closed for the 2013-14 season.

The survey’s estimated biomass of St. Matthew crab was the lowest is has been since 2005.

The crab plan team added an extra buffer for that stock to allow for increased uncertainty and a retrospective pattern, where each year the model is showing a smaller stock in prior years than had been previously estimated.

Last year, St. Matthew’s blue king crab had a TAC of 2.03 million pounds, which was down slightly from 2.36 million pounds in 2011-12.

Norton Sound crab issues on the table

Norton Sound red king crab issues also came up at the meeting.

In June, the council heard a request to change the cycle for Norton Sound so that the quotas come out in the fall, rather than the spring. The new cycle will make it easier to get the summer fishery, which is when most crab is harvested, started each year.

But this fall there were some difficulties in changing the model to accommodate the new plan. The model showed very high recruitment in 2013 and high legal biomass for 2014, but the 2013 catch per unit effort was the lowest it has been in a decade.

As a result, the council Scientific and Statistical Committee recommended that the council wait to implement the new assessment cycle until next year, and to have staff continue to look at the model in the interim.

During staff tasking Oct. 8, the council tentatively agreed to talk about the increasing number of participants in the Norton Sound fishery at the June meeting in Nome after hearing a request to take on the issue during public testimony.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

10/10/2013 - 9:30am