Bristol Bay king crab fishery closed for first time since ‘95

  • A crewman gets crab pots ready for the opening of the 2018 Bristol Bay red king crab season at Westward Seafoods in Unalaska on Oct. 9. After years of harvest declines, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is closed this year for the first time since 1995. (Photo/Jim Paulin/For the Journal)

As crab numbers for most major stocks fall across the Bering Sea, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed for the first time in decades.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages the fishery cooperatively with the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced the closure on Sept. 3. The survey numbers in 2021 estimated that the red king crab stock in Bristol Bay is below the threshold required for a fishery, following the trend during the last decade.

NMFS released its 2021 survey data on Sept. 3, showing the Bristol Bay district red king crab estimated mature male biomass at 12,559 metric tons, or about 27.7 million pounds. That’s higher than 2019, but less than half of the recent 20-year average, continuing the trend of a decline in the region.

“Fifty percent of legal-sized males were new hardshell crab, a decline from the 62 percent of legal-sized males that were new hardshell in 2019,” the report says.

The Bristol Bay red king crab stock, the largest in the state, has been declining for years. Surveys were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in the last year of survey data in 2019, the stock declined and forced managers to cut the total allowable catch, or TAC, by 12 percent to 3.8 million pounds. The stock and harvests have been declining consistently since 2013.

At the same time, red king crab has remained an incredibly valuable fishery. NMFS estimated that in 2020, fishermen landed 8.5 million pounds of king crab in the state, with an estimated $50.2 million value. That number includes all species of king crab, though, not just Bristol Bay red kings.

Disentangling the economic impact of the red king crab fishery is somewhat difficult without further research, said Andy Wink, the executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. It will definitely negatively impact on the participating boats in the crab fleet, but impacts on secondary effects—such as indirect and induced jobs supported by the fishery—are harder to predict.

“The specific economic impacts of this fishery closure would take more study,” he said.

The 2020-21 TAC issued for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was the lowest on record since the 1995-96 closure, according to an economic report on the 2019 fishery presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Managers and surveyors had been saying the stock was approaching its threshold for closure, with reasons for the decline somewhat unclear. The survey from NMFS says that some possible reasons for movement in the stock in the past have been due to water temperature changes or fishery pressure, though the more recent movements seem to indicate water temperature being more likely.

The economic decline in the fishery was already beginning to show in the employment figures as well. According to the economics report, hours worked by processing employees in the fishery declined about 15 percent and wages fell 5 percent between 2018 and 2019. That generally tracks with lower volumes produced. The harvest sector actually increased in 2019 by one vessel, to 56 active vessels, with about 370 active crew.

Most crab stocks across the Eastern Bering Sea this year fell markedly, according to the survey data. That decline was most notable for snow crab, where mature male estimates fell by 55 percent and females by 70 percent from 2019. That was a surprise for some; TACs for snow crab increased in the Eastern Bering Sea in 2020. The results for immature snow crab are even worse: a 96 percent decline in immature females and a greater than 99 percent decline in males.

“Total mature male biomass of commercial crab stocks in the eastern Bering Sea in 2021 was the lowest on record and 2021 biomass estimates continued a declining trend that began in 2015,” the survey states.

Other stocks didn’t show “similar dramatic changes” since 2019, according to the survey, but the St. Matthew Island blue king crab continued to decline and Pribilof Island red and blue king crab estimates remained low.

The only bright spot was Tanner crab, for which the mature female stock estimates increased. However, male mature biomass declined, especially for industry-preferred size crab, and immature Tanner crab biomass declined generally, except for those east of the 166-degree latitude line.

Crab and shellfish abundance generally have been noted to be declining in recent years compared to high harvest records in the 1980s and ‘90s, with scientists still unsure about the exact cause.

King crab is an iconic species for Alaska, selling for a premium and carrying a chunk of the state’s commercial fishing identity with it. Its decline parallels that of the decade-long downward slide of king salmon abundance in rivers across the state, pushing out most large-scale commercial fishing for kings.

Wink noted that the Bristol Bay red king crab closures are difficult, but attest to the sustainability-focused management systems in the state.

“It stings that these two iconic Alaska species (king crab and king salmon) are much less abundant than they used to be, but the strict reductions in harvests of those species is proof that Alaska walks the walk when it comes to sustainability,” he said.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is set to meet starting Oct. 6, with committee and advisory meetings beginning Sept. 30. All the meetings are virtual.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/15/2021 - 10:13am