Seattle boats will feel the biggest pinch of reduced crab catches

Most of the Bering Sea crab goes into the holds of WA boats. And as stocks plummet, NPFMC increases crab bycatch for Seattle-based trawlers.

by | October 9, 2023

WA-based boats own largest chunk of Bering Sea crab quota shares

Seattle-based crab boat that fishes in the Bering Sea

The write up below will appear in the Kodiak Daily Mirror and other news outlets

Small harvests ok’d for Bering Sea red king crab and Tanners; No go again for snow crab

Bering Sea crab fisheries are usually worth between $200 – $250 million to fishermen.
By Laine Welch
October 8, 2023

After sitting on the beach for two years, Alaska’s crabbers can once again drop pots for red king crab in the Bristol Bay portion of the Bering Sea when the season opens on October 15. The fishery has been closed since 2020 due to low stock abundance.

The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, which manages the Bering Sea crab fisheries jointly with federal overseers, announced on October 5 that a small 2.1 million pound red king crab catch will be allowed. That harvest is slightly below the 2.6 million pound catch when the fishery last opened three years ago.

“The reopening of the Bering Sea king crab fishery should bring some much-needed financial relief to the vessel owners and crew of the industry, but it also highlights the impacts of the previous two years of closures,” crabber Gabriel Prout of Kodiak, owner of the Silver Spray, told the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) which represents the fishing fleet. “The size of the fleet participating will be smaller due to financial constraints. The impacts the fleet and the stock continue to face highlights the need for state and federal managers to implement better management strategies to help protect the health of the crab population and those that rely on it. We’ve got to take steps to build resilience in this fishery for the crab, the fishermen, and the communities,” he added.

That could be a tough call, according to Mike Litzow, director of the NOAA Fisheries lab at Kodiak and head of its shellfish assessment program.

“The prospects are shaky. The big picture for Bristol Bay red king crab is we continue to see poor recruitment year after year after year for more than a decade now. And without young crab coming into the stock, both males and females are at a historically low point, and we’re going to expect that will continue until we do see a substantial recruitment event.”

mike litzow, noaa lab director at kodiak, speaking last week to the npfmc

(LW note: Litzow’s comment validates the fact that the NPFMC has done nothing to protect red king crab for more than a decade.)

Litzow’s assessment was based on results of the annual summer crab trawl surveys of the fishing grounds.

Meanwhile, the NPFMC is recommending that Bering Sea trawlers be allowed to take 97,000 individual red king crab as bycatch, up from 32,000 crabs for 2022 and 2023 when the fishery was closed.

Snow crab remains off limits, except for bycatch

For the second consecutive year, the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will remain closed. Formerly Alaska’s largest crab fishery, with catches approaching 330 million pounds in the 1990s, the stock is even worse off now than last year.

“It is unprecedented,” said NOAA’s Mike Litzow at the NPFMC presentation. “We’ve never seen the abundance this low. We’ve never seen a decline as great as what we saw from 2018 to 2021. And we just continue to see those small animals dying out of the population without being replaced.”

Regardless, the NPFMC is proposing a snow crab bycatch take for trawlers at 4,350,000 animals for each of the next two years, the same as the past fishing two seasons.

That prompted a response via email from ABSC executive director Jamie Goen.

  “The crab bycatch limits for other fishing fleets continue to be troubling while crab stocks are at low levels. It highlights the inequities the Council is endorsing by putting priority on bycatch fisheries instead of directed fisheries. For snow crab, the directed fishery is closed this year and yet bycatch fisheries are allowed up to 4.35 million animals, equivalent to approximately 2 million pounds. Further, the crab bycatch limits are set too high to change fishing behavior and create an incentive to avoid crab.”

Jamie goen, director, Alaska Bering Sea crabbers

“Not only are the bycatch limits set too high, Goen added, “but Council analyses flagged that, for midwater pollock trawl which has frequent bottom contact, crab bycatch limits do not work. Instead of crab bycatch limits for that fleet, a more effective tool would be to restrict them from areas important to crab and crab habitat by either closing those areas or prohibiting bottom contact with enforceable technology.”

When the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was closed in 2022, the NPFMC was required to create a 10 year rebuilding plan  to comply with federal fisheries laws. The plan had to be in place prior to the start of the 2023/2024 groundfish fishing seasons in Alaska waters.

According to the initial environmental assessment of the Rebuilding Plan for Eastern Bering Sea Snow Crab released on November 10, 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.”

“No measures to modify Eastern Bering Sea snow crab bycatch management in the groundfish fisheries are included in this rebuilding analysis,” the report added.  “Any restrictions on human activity are considered effectively useless.”

Tanner crab ups and downs

For bairdi Tanner crab, the larger cousin of snow crab, the catch was increased by 55% in the Western fishing region to 1.32 million pounds. Conversely, the harvest was lowered in the Eastern region by 34% to 760,000 pounds.

The NPFMC has recommended proposed trawl bycatch in the combined fishing districts at  3,950,000 individual crabs, up from 3,350,000 crabs in 2022 and 2023.

Reduced catches, closures will mostly pinch non-Alaskan crabbers

 Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fisheries have been managed since 2005 under an individual quota share system which gifted harvesters and processors allocations of crab based on their historical participation. That reduced the crab fleet from 250 boats down to around 60 today.

And it put most of the Bering Sea crab into the boat holds of non-residents.

According to the Alaska Fisheries Information Network (AKFIN), 144 shareholders of Bristol Bay red king crab in 2022 and 2023 were from Washington state holding 52.57% of the quota pool. Sixty-two Alaska residents held shares, equaling 34.46% of the quota pool.

For snow crab, 164 Washington crabbers hold 51.48% of the shares. Sixty-six Alaska residents own 35.83% of the combined quota pool.

For bairdi Tanners, 133 Washington residents lay claim to 50.3% of the quota pool in the Western fishing district; 60 Alaskans hold 36.56% of the shares. In the Eastern fishing region, 145 Washington-based crabbers own 57.42% of the quota pool, while 49 Alaska residents have 29.58%.

The Tanner crab fishery also opens on October 15, but most boats opt to begin fishing in January.

Note: Tanner crab is always capitalized because it is named after discoverer Zera Luther Tanner, commander of the research vessel Albatross in the late 1800s.

Zera Luther Tanner

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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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