Trawlers get a pass in Bering Sea snow crab rebuilding plan

“No measures to modify Eastern Bering Sea snow crab bycatch management in the groundfish fisheries are included in this rebuilding analysis.”

by | December 1, 2022

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“No measures are included to modify snow crab bycatch.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) must decide this month on a 10 year rebuilding plan for Bering Sea snow crab to comply with federal fisheries laws.

They have no time to waste: the plan must 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, “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 plan states.

NPFMC has two options

In June the NPFMC selected two snow crab rebuilding alternatives.   

Alternative 1: No Action, an impossibility due to fishery law requirements.

Alternative 2: Adopt a rebuilding plan and specify a target rebuilding time not to exceed TMAX (the maximum time limit to rebuild the stock).  The stock will be considered “rebuilt” once it reaches BMSY (the historical level of stock abundance at which a sustainable harvest can be taken).

There are two Options to be considered under Alternative 2.

Option 1: No directed fishing until the stock is rebuilt, allow bycatch removals only.

Option 2: Allow bycatch removals and a directed snow crab fishery under the current State of Alaska harvest strategy.

The analysis states: “Because fishing mortality is not the primary driver of the current snow crab population status, either option does not substantively change the projection of TMIN (the minimum projected rebuilding time); under both options it is assumed that the stock would rebuild within 10 years.”

The NPFMC scientists recognized that both benchmarks could be unrealistic, pointed out Terry Haines of Kodiak in an opinion piece for the Kodiak Daily Mirror titled “Limits of the snow crab rebuilding plan.” Haines is a 30+ year fishing veteran, producer of public radio’s Alaska Fisheries Report and a Kodiak City Council member.

He added: “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.”

“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 wrote. “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.’

terry haines

Any restrictions on human activity “are considered effectively useless”

“And it is the reverse side of this assessment that is really relevant to Council action, or its lack,” Haines continued.

“As the analysis states: “…fishing mortality is not the primary driver of the current snow crab population status…” Therefore, restrictions on human activities that directly result in crab mortality, whether directed fishing or bycatch, are considered effectively useless in the rebuilding of the stock.”

 The Council requested in June 2022 additional information to help determine if the following bycatch management measures would affect the snow crab rebuilding timeline: • Remove the snow crab PSC (prohibited species catch) floor • Count all trawl PSC throughout the full range of the stock toward the PSC limit • Limit on fixed gear PSC  

“Analysts concluded that none of the aforementioned bycatch management measures would have any measurable effect on the rebuilding time for snow crab as fishing mortality is not the main driver in rebuilding under the proposed model projections,” the plan states.

” Therefore, analysts conclude that recovery of the Eastern Bering Sea snow crab stock is likely to not be affected by current or predicted bycatch levels, based on average historical bycatch.”

npfmc rebuilding plan

Non-pelagic (mid-water) trawl fisheries account for the greatest levels of snow crab bycatch in groundfish fisheries. It is highest in the yellowfin sole fishery, followed by flathead sole. the report says.

Alaska’s 2022/23 snow crab season was cancelled for the first time ever due to a sudden and unexpected “disappearance” of the stock. Meanwhile, the snow crab bycatch limit for the trawl sector is 3,623,201 individuals. They are required by federal law to discard the crab overboard.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets at the Anchorage Hilton from December 5 – 14.

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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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