AK Crab Redux: Trawlers pan temporary protections for red king crab

Protecting Bristol Bay red king crab? It's not our problem, say trawlers as a temporary closure is set for a NPFMC vote this week.

by | December 5, 2022

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“No immediate benefits to be derived,” say trawl reps

Credit: Growing Leaders

Trawlers are getting a pass on being included in the Bering Sea snow crab rebuilding plan that fishery managers will choose this month. It includes no additional constraints on the crab they can take as bycatch.

In a redux of ‘conservation is everyone else’s problem,’ trawlers also will oppose a temporary plan to protect red king crab when it is first up on the NPFMC December docket this week. It follows two years of the fishery being closed due to low stock abundance.

Starting on Dec. 8, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will deliberate on an emergency action to protect Bristol Bay Red King Crab (BBRKC) requested by the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

“The current system is mired in decades of bureaucratic and legal processes that drive towards inaction and status quo. We need a system to manage U.S. fisheries that encourages and rewards conservation and swift action. ABSC has recommended actions to help better manage and conserve Alaska’s crab stocks to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for years …These proposals are consistently denied even in the face of growing evidence that these actions would have helped crab stocks.”

Jaime goen, executive director, Alask bering sea crabbers

The petition seeks to close two “savings” areas from January 1- June 30 of next year to all fishing gear that comes into contact with the bottom: pelagic (“mid-water”) trawls, pots and longlines.

The areas are closed to bottom trawling year round with no exceptions. But the emergency action would close nearly 4,000 miles to pollock trawlers using pelagic gear.

That follows revelations by NPFMC staff in April that pelagic (mid-water) trawls actually touch the sea floor on average about 85% of the time while fishing for pollock.

“In the closed area, which protected mating and molting BBRKC, those gear could be killing unobserved breeding and vulnerable molting red king crab. The request to close the area to all gear types noted that the Council has been aware of the BBRKC decline for 15 years, since 2007, but has done nothing to address the decline or provide additional protection to the crab population,” said Goen said in the petition request.  

She added that the pot cod sector has voluntarily avoided the savings areas to help protect the dwindling crab resource.

But according to the trawlers, “There are no apparent, immediate benefits to be derived from granting the emergency action” and “It fails to meet the agency’s emergency rule making criteria.”

Their Nov. 1 comments to Jon Kurland, head of NOAA/Alaska, continued: “The best available scientific information clearly indicates the requested action would not address other climatic conditions affecting red king crab and would not address other management challenges that are known to impact red king crab,” wrote Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association and Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative.

Typically, Madsen/Mann only stressed impacts to the trawl sector.  “First, closure of this area would cause substantial direct harm for the pollock fishery and individuals and communities reliant on the pollock resource,” they wrote.

Secondly, shifting fishing effort “would limit the flexibility of the fleets to avoid non target species, including salmon. It would result in moving fishing effort to areas where Chinook salmon bycatch rates are known to be 35 times higher for the fleet.  Also, it could lead to increased gear conflicts and reduced harvests. The NPFMC is the appropriate forum for analysis and deliberations in such tradeoffs.”

Madsen/Mann added that “the best available science indicates that changes in the ecosystem and temperature are the primary divers or poor crab recruitment and low abundance.  Closing the (savings areas) to the pelagic trawl vessels operated by our members will not address the cause of crab abundance decline.”

The trawl reps pointed out the “extraordinarily low levels of red king crab taken as bycatch,” saying “Not once in the last decade have the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock fleets taken more than 23 animals within (the savings areas) in a calendar year.”  Allowable trawl bycatch for 2022/23 is 26,445 animals down from 80,160 last season.    

“A more holistic approach than simply closing the directed crab fishery and costing the U.S. economy over a billion dollars would be to share the burden of conservation across fishing sectors that impact the stock. To date, the Council, the state Fish and Game Commissioner, and NOAA Fisheries, have not taken additional meaningful actions on any other fisheries that impact Bering Sea crab and habitat. There is a better way to manage Bering Sea fisheries, one that rebuilds stocks, supports fishing communities, balances the impacts across all fishing sectors, and keeps everyone fishing, including the directed crab fishery.”

jaime goen, absc

Madsen/Mann agreed with Goen that “The NMFS, NPFMC and State of Alaska have had a lot of time” over the last 13 years since the declines became evident to consider additional management measures through the “rigorous, deliberative, transparent and science-based process that is mandated by the MSA.”

Madsen should know as she’s abetted the problem. She was appointed to the NPFMC in 2001, named chair in 2003 and served in that capacity until 2007.

And while she is quick to always point to “the best available science” whenever a trawl restriction is proposed, Madsen poohpoohs the finding by NPFMC scientists that pelagic trawl gear is frequently on the bottom.

“It’s an estimate! It’s not proven,” she exhorted at a Nov. 7 AK Bycatch Task Force meeting. “It’s been known all along by many,” she blurted as eyebrows raised among the participants.

“The trawlers are always skating around definitions,” said task force member Raymond May of Kodiak.

Why is it that trawlers never express concern about their impacts to fishery resources?  

Likely, it’s because nearly 80% of the dockside value of ALL Alaska groundfish fisheries goes out of state, primarily to Seattle, where nearly every one of the big boats are homeported, even those owned by Native corporations.

Yet they resist measures to help protect Alaska’s crab or fish stocks. They fight restrictions on salmon bycatch and for six years, they resisted a change to trawl halibut bycatch that is based on stock abundance, instead of a fixed cap, like all other users.  

Alaska’s trawl fisheries play an important economic role to the state and the nation. Tossing millions of pounds of fish and crab overboard each year is required by federal law. That’s where changes must be made, especially to outdated bycatch loophole language such as “optimum yield” and “where practicable.”  

Until then, the Bering Sea trawl sector will, in the words of Bycatch Task Force member Duncan Fields, continue to enjoy “most favored status.”

When it comes to red king crab protections being called for this week, that’s exactly what the trawlers are hoping for.  

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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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