Faced with crashing crab stocks, council looks to swiftly analyze closures and trawl impacts


Elizabeth Earl

For the Journal

Wed, 10/20/2021

As crab fishermen face a dire season in Western Alaska this year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking for quick analysis and the fleet is looking for more extensive closures to protect some crab stocks.

Survey data has shown an approximately 90% drop in snow crab stocks since the last survey, pushing acceptable catch limits down, while the long-term decline of Bristol Bay red king crab has led to a complete closure in the fishery for the first time since 1994.

The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, the trade group that represents the majority of crab harvesters in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands rationalization program, has estimated a $200 million loss for the fishery.

“It is simply catastrophic,” wrote ABSC executive director Jamie Goen in a Sept. 29 letter to the council. “We have boats that are not going to be able to make their payments, vessel repairs that will be delayed, and long-time skippers and crew that are losing their jobs, not to mention all the downstream effects to processors, communities, supply chains, and support businesses.”

The problems with the crab fisheries in the region are complicated, and the reason for the apparent stock declines is not entirely clear. With an eye toward conservation, the ABSC requested that the council extend a closure area for red king crab in Bristol Bay and, among other long-term actions, to develop a council discussion paper based on how to minimize bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear in crab protection areas. The council voted to start the process for both.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game deputy commissioner Rachel Baker, who serves on the council, introduced the first motion to extend the Bristol Bay closure area. The first action would ask the council staff for an analysis of the effects of extending the red king crab conservation area in Bristol Bay northward by half a degree. The ABSC says this would help protect crab stocks, which are increasingly concentrated in that northern area.

Baker said she drafted the motion in response to requests from stakeholders, but wanted the council to have more information before taking definitive action.

“While I realize there are some time constraints related to this analysis, and it’s not practicable for every single impact, I am requesting this analysis as outlined in the motion in the hopes to be able to understand if the proposed action is a likely solution to the emergency request from reduced mature female red king crab abundance as outlined in the ABSC request,” she said.

Fish and Game, which cooperatively manages the crab fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is very concerned about the decline in the Bristol Bay red king crab stock, but the request for the analysis is meant to help strike a balance between the need for conservation and the impact on the groundfish fisheries in the area, Baker said.

The other motion, introduced by council member Cora Campbell, would start the development process for a longer analysis document, which the council refers to as a discussion paper, about the impact of bottom contact by pelagic trawl gear on Bristol Bay red king crab stocks. It would also evaluate boundaries used for the crab surveys, assessments, bycatch determination and directed fishery area. That is almost directly in line with what the ABSC requested.

Campbell referenced ecosystem changes in the region in her rationale for the request. She said she hopes the discussion paper will help establish a discussion basis for collaboration among multiple user groups while balancing groups’ interests.

“I chose to focus solely on BBRKC because that stock and our opilio stock are clearly the most stressed, and opilio will be the focus of a rebuilding plan that will address most of these elements for that stock,” she said.

Many seem to agree that changes in the ecosystem may be playing a role with crab stocks in the Bering Sea region. Goen noted in a separate, Sept. 29 letter to the council that the crabbers acknowledge that changing ocean conditions and predator/prey dynamics may be playing a role, in addition to direct and indirect fishing pressure. Survey data has been showing that the largest concentration of female red king crab in Bristol Bay has been moving north in recent years, so expanding that conservation area would help protect them from fishing pressure, she wrote.

The drop in snow crab stocks gave the industry a shock this year — in other recent data, the snow crab stock seemed to be on the upswing. Katie Palof, the co-chair of the council’s Crab Plan Team, presented data to the council that indicated two possibilities for the fate of the missing snow crab: They’re either alive and the survey missed them, or they’re dead with an as-yet unknown cause. She said it’s not likely that the survey system was flawed, because it worked for Tanner crab. There are a number of other factors — including possibly increased predation by species like Pacific cod, a change in bottom temperatures, an increase in bitter crab infection among the crab stocks and possibly fishing pressure — that may indicate that the crab are dead.

“Snow crab is our biggest species to be aware of this year, just because of the decline we saw on the survey,” she said.

An undercurrent of urgency ran among commenters at the meetings. Particularly, the council received hundreds of comments urging them to take stronger action to limit bycatch limits in the trawl fisheries in the Bering Sea. That’s not entirely because of crab, though — this year also saw a precipitous decline in salmon runs in Western Alaska, which has led to subsistence food instability for many rural Alaska villages.

Council member Bill Tweit said he noticed the division among commenters, particularly among the crab fishermen, in the comments, and hoped they could change their “divisive language” as the fisheries try to work together on what to do about the Bering Sea’s changing landscape.

“I see some parallels between the crab situation and the salmon situation in the Bering Sea,” he said. “With red king crab and with Chinook, we’re seeing long downward trends; with snow crab and chum there’s really some sudden crashes. Obviously equally, crab harvesters are as dependent on the Bering Sea as anybody else, too. We’re all in the same boat together.”

Baker’s motion for the analysis on the Bristol Bay red king crab conservation area closure provides for a fast timeline. She estimated it could be done by the council’s December meeting to help them make decisions on managing the fishery.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at elizabethearl@gmail.com.