Snow crab stock “lowest ever seen;” king crab “marginally” better – but crab bycatch increased

"Any restrictions on human activity are considered effectively useless.'" NPFMC in 2022 on snow crab rebuilding plan, which excludes bycatch.

by | October 6, 2023

But NPFMC proposes to raise crab bycatch caps for next two years

Researchers have watched Bristol Bay red king crab decline for over a decade while the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has done discussed and delayed any protections. And Bering Sea snow crab declines are “unprecedented.”

That was the takeaway message from NOAA’s Mike Litzow, a lead crab researcher at Kodiak, in a Wednesday presentation to the NPFMC, which manages the crab fisheries.

But even prior to hearing Litzow’s presentation, the NPFMC released its proposed crab bycatch allowances for 2024 and 2025 – which increases the bycatch numbers across the board.

For red king crab, the allowable bycatch would be 97,000 animals, up from 26,445 crabs for 2022 and 2023.

For snow crab, the allowable bycatch for each of the next two years would be 4,350,000 animals, up from 3,623,201 crabs for the past two years.

For bairdi Tanner crab, the proposed bycatch in two fishing districts is 3,950,000 individual crabs, up from 2,604,904 crabs in 2022 and 2023.

Bering Sea snow crab discarded by trawlers as bycatch, as required by law

Snow crab 10 year rebuilding plan does not include bycatch

When the Bering Sea snow crab fishery was closed in 2022, the NPFMC was required to create a 10 year rebuilding plan for Bering Sea snow crab to comply with federal fisheries laws. The plan had to be in place 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 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.”
“Any restrictions on human activity ‘are considered effectively useless.'”

NPFMC on its 10 year snow crab rebuilding plan, november 2022

 “The time it will take to rebuild the stock depends entirely on unpredictable environmental conditions and it’s not known if snow crab will ever return to historical levels of abundance,” wrote Terry Haines of Kodiak, a 30+ year fishing veteran, producer of public radio’s Alaska Fisheries Report and a Kodiak City Council member.

“The allowance in the projections for recruitment to eventually increase and contribute to stock growth assumes that existing ecosystem conditions or other constraints on production will not continue indefinitely, Haines added. “However, if recruitment remains at low levels, the population may take substantially longer to show rebuilding progress and may never reach historical abundance.”

This astonishing assessment basically amounts to ‘hopefully environmental conditions will improve and they will come back by themselves, but maybe not.’

Here is more from the Alaska Beacon:

Bering Sea crab surveys show populations still low a year after marquee Alaska harvests closed

With snow crab and red king crab stocks still ailing, state officials are due to decide soon whether harvests will be allowed in the coming year


A year after state officials imposed unprecedented harvest shutdowns on crab fishing in the Bering Sea, stocks continue to be in dismal shape, suggesting that continued closures may be on the way.

The snow crab population in the southeastern Bering Sea is in even worse shape than it was last year, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled the 2022-23 harvest, according to this year’s research surveys.

Those survey results were presented on Wednesday to the advisory panel of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is charged by the federal government with managing fisheries in the region. The presentation was by Mike Litzow, a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist who is one of the leaders of the council’s team that plans for crab fisheries.

“We’ve never seen the abundance this low. We’ve never seen a decline as great as what we saw from 2018 to 2021. That was completely unprecedented. And we just continue to see those small animals dying out of the population without being replaced, so I think it’s fair to say we’re in an unprecedented situation for snow crab,” Litzow told the advisory panel. He directs NOAA Fisheries’ Kodiak laboratory and shellfish assessment program.

The council and its associated panels are meeting this week in Anchorage.

Snow crab numbers crashed 80% from 2018 to last year, according to NOAA surveys. It will take several years for that population to recover, if recovery is possible, experts have said.

For Bristol Bay red king crab, another population for which commercial harvests were canceled last year, the picture is marginally better, suggesting a small harvest might be possible.

The abundance of mature females was up 46% since last year, the survey found – though that is an increase from levels of mature females that were the lowest since at least the mid-1990s. Abundance of mature males in the Bristol Bay red king crab population was 21% lower than last year, the survey showed, and those numbers are also lower than counts for most years stretching back to the 1970s.

Abundance in fisheries is defined as the number of a certain type of fish or total weight of that fish in a specific geographic area. 

Last year’s closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was the second consecutive shutdown year for that harvest, which was also unprecedented.

The prospects for the population’s future depend on recruitment, a term for the process of young fish surviving and transitioning into later life stages, Litzow told the panel. Those prospects are shaky, he said.

“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,” he said.

 A snow crab, in back, is displayed with a bairdi tanner crab, in front, in this undated photo. The crab species are related, but snow crab generally dwell in farther-north and colder waters. (Photo provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages Bering Sea crab fisheries in cooperation with federal regulators, is due to announce plans for the upcoming harvest season after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council reviews biologists’ information and makes its determinations.

Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, said the state will set the crab quotas soon. It is “unlikely” that any large harvest will be allowed, he said by email. Once a stock is overfished, recovery takes a long time, if it even happens, he said.

“So caution is warranted but must be balanced against the viability of the industry,” he said by email.

Snow crab and red king crab are marquee Alaska seafood species, and in normal years they command premium prices in the marketplace. While there are some other crab harvests that were conducted in Alaska, normally the Bristol Bay region of the Bering Sea is the biggest source of red king crab. Alaska’s snow crab population has also supported a lucrative fishery, but the crabs are dependent on cold-water conditions in the Bering Sea, as well as the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to the north. Last year’s red king crab and snow crab harvest cancellations resulted in direct losses of $287.7 million, according to state figures.

Litzow, in his presentation, noted that there are signs of long-term transformation in the crab populations’ marine environment.

While bottom-water temperatures in the red king crab habitat were normal this past year, with the usual pocket of cold lingering, there has been a gradual acidification of that water over the past two decades, he said. If that continues, it will become difficult for crabs to maintain their shells, he said.

Another concern is the boom in sockeye salmon abundance in the eastern Bering Sea, he said. Those sockeye may be preying on crab larvae, he said.

In the case of cold-dependent snow crab, there is speculation that gradual warming in the Bering Sea is leading to displacement by another crab population, he said.

While snow crab stocks are struggling, this year’s NOAA survey showed an abnormally high level of recruitment for bairdi tanner crab, a different but related species that generally thrives and in harvested in more southern waters, including in places like Kodiak.

The hypothesis, Litzow said, is that “longer term, we might see tanner crab filling the niche that snow crab previously occupied in the southeast Bering Sea as it warms.”

For crab fishermen and the coastal communities that depend on crab harvesting, the collapses have been devastating, said industry and local representatives.

“We’re operating in a new world. The crab world is no longer the world that we used to know,” Heather McCarty, representing the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, said on Wednesday in testimony to the North Pacific Fishery Council’s scientific and statistical committee. 

She said the crab disasters have been especially hard on St. Paul, a Pribilof Island village that is home to one of the world’s biggest crab processing plants and has depended on crab harvests for most of its tax revenues. “There might not be a St. Paul that’s recognizable in 10 years,” she said.

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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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