Bering Sea crabbers will soon know what their catches will – or won’t – be for the upcoming season that opens on October 15.

This month the Crab Plan Team, advisers to federal and state fishery managers, will review the stock assessments and other science for Bristol Bay red king crab, bairdi Tanners and snow crab. The data is used to set the annual Total Allowable Catches, or TACs.

But this year, the Covid virus canceled the summer surveys that have tracked the stocks each year for decades.

“There was no NMFS summer trawl survey which is an important data point going into our stock assessments. This is the first time in decades that we haven’t had that survey. So there’s going to be some added uncertainties.”

Jamie Goen is executive director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, which represents harvesters.

Still, Goen says the fleet is anticipating an opener for red king crab, likely less than the 3.8 million pounds taken last season.

“For Bristol Bay red crab, our preliminary indication is that there is possibly going to be a small red king crab fishery this year. However, we’ve heard from scientists in the past that there has not been good recruitment into that fishery for over a decade.”

On the brighter side, the snow crab stock has been on a steady upward tick –

“For opilio we’ve been seeing a lot of recruitment of young crab into this fishery which is good news for us. So even without a survey I think the outlook is good. It’s hard to say though given the lack of a  survey whether the TAC would end up being about the same as last year, which was 34 million pounds, or if it would go up or down.”

And a revised management strategy for bairdi Tanners, snow crab’s larger cousin, also could revive a fishery that produced 2.4 million pounds in 2018.

Crab stocks are very unpredictable and the uncertainties from no surveys has the fleet on edge. Goen says they fear it will result in extra fishing restrictions that are not needed.

 “As crabbers, we’re concerned that without a survey, managers will be adding extra buffers for uncertainty which would further reduce our TAC. We’re already a heavily buffered fishery because of the variability in our stock and we don’t even come close to approaching our ABC every year. We don’t come close to approaching our existing buffers, so we don’t think there needs to be added buffers this year because we are missing a survey.”  

Goen added that sales of crab at retail stores appear to be up but markets are still unstable due to the pandemic. That adds even more uncertainty.

“We recognize with Covid and a global pandemic that everyone is under added pressure. There are increased costs for operating businesses on both the harvester and processor sides. So we’re all just working through how to best keep Alaska communities and fishermen safe during Covid and how to navigate these increased costs while operating our businesses.”

The total 2019/20 Bering Sea crab catch was 44.4 million pounds for a value of $199.2 million, according to NOAA Fisheries in Juneau.

You can tune in live to the Crab Plan Team meetings from September 14 through 17. The agenda and documents are on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council website.

On September 18th there will be a two hour meeting recap designed especially for industry members.