Business as usual for trawlers that continue to take millions of pounds of crab as bycatch
It will be at least another four years before another snow crab harvest occurs in the Bering Sea. That’s how long it will take for the population to provide enough crabs to mature to harvestable size.
That’s according to Ben Daly, western region research supervisor for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game at Kodiak who spoke at a two-hour Zoom meeting on November 10.
Coverage by Undercurrent News reported that Daly said it will take at least that long for an estimated population of 50 million pounds (about 33.3 million individual snow crabs) to molt four times and have a mature and harvestable shell size of at least 3.74 inches. Only the male crabs are allowed to be retained for sale.
“Given the size composition, the population, mature male biomass and four-inch male numbers will likely get worse before they get better,” Daly said, adding that it’s going to take a longer time to build the male and female crab population back up than it did for the collapse to occur.
The presentation opened with what Daly described as “the single-most depressing, bleak slide” showing nearly all of the crab fisheries with zero allowable catches by crabbers for the 2022/23 seasons, Undercover News reported.
The one exception was Bering Sea bairdi Tanner crab which has a catch limit of about two million pounds.
Daly said the cancellation of the 2020 trawl survey due to Covid played a “terrible role in blocking the agency’s view of what was happening at that time.”
Scientists earlier had described massive numbers of young snow crab recruiting into the fishery in 2018 and 2019 “before an unexpected high level of mortalities took down much of the population.”
The missed survey data resulted in ADF&G setting the 2021 snow crab catch limit at 45 million pounds (about 30 million crabs) which was “too high.”
“In terms of the timing relative to snow crab biology and the collapse, that missing (2020) survey data point really couldn’t have come at a worse time with regards to our understanding of what was going on with the population at that time,” Daly said.
“We had a 45 million pound allowable catch that was, we now know, occurring in the midst of a dramatic population decline.”
Between 2019 and 2022, while in the midst of a major stock collapse as many as 112 million pounds of snow crab were removed from the fishery, he said.
Daly said there is likely some movement of crab moving from US waters into Russian waters of the Bering Sea due to warming conditions.
To help reverse the snow crab decline, Daly said female crabs and habitat need more protections. He also suggested minimizing crab deaths by reducing bycatch and “getting a better handle on critical spawning habitats.”
To further reduce crab discards, he suggested testing larger mesh-sized nets by trawlers, longer soak times for crab pots and other gear modifications.
Crab closures don’t sink trawl bycatch takes
Meanwhile, the pre-approved snow crab bycatch take by trawlers for 2022/23 is 3,623,201 crabs (roughly 5,434,801 pounds).
For red king crab, closed to crabbers for the second year in a row, the allowable trawl bycatch is 26,445 crabs.
For bairdi Tanners, the trawl bycatch ok’d by fishery managers is nearly 2.7 million crabs, or about 8 million pounds. The Tanner catch limit for the crab fleet is just over 2 million pounds.