Kodiak Tanner crab              Credit:  SeafoodNews.com

Kodiak’s Tanner crab fishery wrapped up a few weeks ago after a longer than usual two month opener in one region. As expected, it was slow going for 49 boats that dropped pots for a 400,000 pound catch limit. The average CPUE (catch per unit of effort) was 12 crabs per pot.

“Everyone who wanted to go went out and gave it a good shot for a week or two and then a lot of boats packed it up after their first or second trip and about three boats continued fishing, many offshore with good fishing.”  

Nat Nichols is area shellfish manager for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game office in Kodiak.

What’s most exciting, he says, is the numbers of small crab seen during the fishery.

“Lots of talk about small crab. Lots of excitement about the future. That’s great to hear from the fleet. It’s what we’ve been watching  What the fleet was seeing is this 2018 group of crab –  we first saw them in 2018 and they were about a year old during that  survey  – it’s the biggest estimate of crab we’ve seen in the time series.”

That 2018 total Tanner cohort is estimated at 270 million crab in a time series that goes back to 1988.

“They are getting bigger and approaching legal size. Not necessarily ready for next year but they are getting to a size where they are recruiting to the gear, they are seeing them in the gear, so there’s a lot of talk about small crab, a lot of excitement about that and it’s really good to hear.  In the past it’s taken about 4 years from when we first see them to when they get to legal size and we start fishing on them. So we expect them to be legal size in the 2023 fishery.

However, Nichols says these Tanners appear to be behaving a bit differently as it’s very likely there are two good years of recruitment. There also is quite a large size range in the 2018 group and they appear to be growing faster than they’ve seen in the past, and a good portion could approach legal size next year.

The Tanner crab  survival rates also are better – in the 2019 crab survey only about 18 percent of the total estimate was lost.  Nichols says that could be due to fewer cod feeding on the tiny crabs.

“That certainly can’t hurt and I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that it’s likely that Tanner crab are going to be worth more here in Kodiak in the next few years than cod will be in volume and numbers.”

Kodiak fishermen got a base price of over $4 per pound for the crabs which weigh 2.2 pounds on average, but final payouts are likely to take a hit from the coronavirus impacts on markets.

Kodiak crabbers are now readying pots for Dungeness which opens on the east side on May 1 and at the island’s southern tip on June 15.

Last year’s fishery produced over 1.5 million pounds, the biggest catch since 1992. Nichols says there seems to be a pattern in Kodiak where there’s a few big Dungeness years every 10 years or so.

Much of last year’s big catch also was due to increased fishing effort by 15 boats, up from the usual 8 to 10. The CPUE’s also were up to nine dungies per pot.

 “Dungie fishing at Kodiak is sort of a low density fishing – a lot of gear, long soak time and CPUE’s that generally are 3-6 crab per pot – so the fact that it’s nine means that fishing was strong.”

Nichols expects more than 25 boats on the grounds this year in what remains as one of the only open access crab fisheries in the N. Pacific.

“I think we’ll have a big year this year. What 2020, 2021 brings is up in the air. It will be really interesting to talk to fishermen to hear what they’re seeing in terms of measuring crab or recruits that are coming up.”   

Last year’s Dungeness price averaged about $2.85 a pound, worth about $4.3 million at the Kodiak docks.