NPFMC asks public for ideas to reduce Bering Sea crab deaths from fishing gear, rebuild stocks

NPFMC wants to hear from the public on crab protections; ok's trawl bycatch numbers that top crab fleet's catches

by | July 14, 2022

Filed Under Environment | Management

Includes Bristol Bay red king crab; snow crab called “mass mortality event

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NFMC) is asking the public for comments on ways to reduce crab deaths from fishing gear for Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab.

The notice was posted this week in the Federal Register.  

Bering Sea snow crab was declared ‘overfished’ last October after a more than 95% drop in the stock.    

The 2021/22 Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was cancelled for the first time in 25 years due to low numbers of crab.

For snow crab, the stock crash followed a surge in 2018 that showed a 60% boost in male crabs and nearly the same for females. Bob Foy, director of the NPFMC Crab Plan Team called it “one of the largest snow crab recruitment events biologists have ever seen.”

NOAA Fisheries now calls it “a mass mortality event.”

However, defying all logic, the snow crab stock is “not subject to overfishing,” according to a NPFMC report. That’s because the fishery removals aren’t above the level considered to be sustainable. Rather, it’s because the stock dropped for other reasons that scientists and managers aren’t sure of.

Hypotheses on causes of the snow crab decline include a massive migration out of U.S. waters due to climate change, changes in predator behavior or difficulty finding food.

Snow crab discarded as bycatch

A February report by NPFMC scientists unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to the management plan for crab bycatch in the Bering Sea groundfish trawl fisheries.

It stated: “Crab may actively escape capture from trawl gear, as they can slip under the trawl itself, or over the sweeps, but the damage from the gear results in mortality or delayed mortality due to injuries. The potential for unobserved mortality of crabs that encounter bottom trawls but are not captured has long been a concern for the management of groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea.”  

The concern over “unobserved mortality” of crab has been voiced for over three decades.

The report said that the majority of crab taken as bycatch by trawl gear trawl occurs when vessels are targeting yellowfin sole. “This is the case across all crab species” the report said.

NPFMC poses questions for comments

The Federal Register notice “invites the public to submit written comments on the topic generally and in response to specific questions outlined below.”  The questions were posed in a NPFMC motion in June.

The questions are:

1. What voluntary measures for implementation in 2023 and beyond are there to avoid snow crab and reduce crab mortality in the non-directed fisheries?

2. What measures can be taken in the directed crab fishery to reduce discard mortality of snow crab?

3. What type of research would inform development of more flexible and effective spatial management measures; gear modifications to reduce impacts on the snow crab stock, or to evaluate unobserved mortality in the trawl sector?

NPFMC’s trawl crab bycatch numbers exceed catches for the crab fleet

Meanwhile, the NPFMC in December “pre-approved” bycatch numbers for 2022 trawl fisheries.

For snow crab, the allowable bycatch is 5.99 million individual crabs, equal to 7.8 million pounds.  The catch for the crab fleet is 5.6 million pounds.

For the closed Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, trawlers can take 80,160 crabs as bycatch, or roughly 520-thousand pounds.

Public comments on reducing Bering Sea crab deaths from fishing gear and ideas for rebuilding the stocks can be submitted through the North Pacific Council’s meeting portal.     (

Deadline to comment is September 23.

Tagged as: public comments

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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