Bering Sea snow crab is on NOAA “overfished” list; trawl bycatch increased

Trawl bycatch is considered "effectively useless in rebuilding the snow crab stock." So...NPFMC boosts bycatch to +4 million crabs.

by | May 7, 2024

Report includes first-ever strategy to ensure “inclusive governance” and “equal treatment”

NOAA Fisheries released its annual Status of US Fisheries report to Congress last week which claims that in 2023 the number of stocks on the “overfishing” and “overfished” lists decreased, with the number of stocks on the overfishing list reaching an all-time low.

The report highlights the work of NOAA Fisheries and the eight Regional Fishery Management Councils that collectively manage 506 stocks or stock complexes in 45 fishery management plans.

At the end of 2023, the overfishing list included 21 stocks, the overfished list included 47 stocks, and one stock was rebuilt, bringing the number of rebuilt stocks to 50 since 2000.

Bering Sea snow crab is on the “overfished” list meaning that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council must develop a plan to rebuild the stock to a sustainable target level. (Blue king crab at the Pribilofs and St. Matthew Island also are on the overfished list.)

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery has been closed since 2022 due to a sudden and unexpected “disappearance” of the stock. The NPFMC was required to submit a 10-year rebuilding plan prior to the start of the 2023/2024 fishing season for groundfish in Alaska waters.

According to the initial environmental assessment of the Rebuilding Plan for Eastern Bering Sea Snow Crab released in November 2022, “The main driver in speed of rebuilding for this stock is not fishing mortality, rather it is likely related to recruitment and the conditions that allow for increased recruitment into the population, such as the Arctic Oscillation and physical indicators including, but not limited to, temperature, sea ice extent, resource availability, and predator-prey relationships.”

 The rebuilding plan states: “No measures to modify Eastern Bering Sea snow crab bycatch management in the groundfish fisheries are included in this rebuilding analysis.”

“Fishing mortality is not the primary driver of the current snow crab population status…”Therefore, restrictions on human activities that directly result in crab mortality, whether directed fishing or bycatch, are considered effectively useless in the rebuilding of the stock.”

Rebuilding Plan for Eastern Bering Sea Snow Crab

Trawl bycatch gets a boost!

As NOAA/NPFMC works to “rebuild the stock” they INCREASED the number of snow crab the trawl sector can take as bycatch for 2024 and 2025. The allowed trawl bycatch take in 2023 was 3,623,201 individual crabs; for 2024/25 it is 4,350,000 crabs. The trawlers are required by federal law to discard the crab overboard.

NOAA “phrases to know”

The Status of US Stocks report provides definitions for the main concepts related to “overfishing” and “overfished.”

Maximum sustainable yield (MSY): The largest long-term average catch that can be taken from a stock under prevailing environmental and fishery conditions.

Overfishing: A stock having a harvest rate higher than the rate that produces its MSY.

Overfished: A stock having a population size that is too low and that jeopardizes the stock’s ability to produce its MSY.

Rebuilt: A stock that was previously overfished and abundance is now at the target population size that supports its MSY.

What’s the difference?

NOAA says overfishing is a direct result of fishing activities. Allowed to continue unchecked, overfishing can lead to an overfished population. Current management practices—such as annual catch limits and accountability measures— reduce the likelihood of this happening.

An overfished population is typically caused by overfishing, but other factors—including habitat degradation, pollution, climate change, and disease— can reduce the population size. Even when fishing is significantly reduced, these other factors may affect the stock’s ability to rebuild. 

A “blueprint” for Equity and Environmental Justice

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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