Bristol Bay king and snow crab fisheries close due to low numbers

  • The crew of the fishing vessel Pinnacle drops a crab pot, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022 in the Bering Sea southwest of St. Matthew Island. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Two of the largest crab fisheries in Alaska will be completely closed this season as stocks continue to decline.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced closures in the Bering Sea snow crab fishery and the Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries on Oct. 10. The fisheries usually begin in mid-October. Fish and Game has the final say on whether a fishery goes forward, and there just weren’t enough crab to allow for seasons in those two fisheries, according to the announcements.

This is the second year of complete closure for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, but the first for the formerly booming Bering Sea snow crab fishery. Fish and Game said in its announcement it will continue to work with the crab industry during the rebuilding phase, including on potential plans for fishing during periods of low abundance.

“Understanding crab fishery closures have substantial impacts on harvesters, industry, and communities, ADF&G must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks,” Fish and Game said. “Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock.”

Over the last two years, Bering Sea crab fishermen have been watching increasingly dismal survey data come back. The Bristol Bay red king crab stocks have been declining for years, and last year brought the first complete closure in decades. Snow crab harvesters, however, were shocked last year when the survey data showed that a massive portion of the mature snow crab had either died or disappeared from the survey findings.

The National Marine Fisheries Service officially determined that the Bering Sea snow crab stock was overfished because of its low abundance. That triggered the process to start developing a rebuilding plan to help get the stock back to sustainable levels. The plan for rebuilding is still underway, but the most recent survey data shows a continued decline into this year.

Katie Palof, a federal fisheries researcher and a co-chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Crab Plan Team, told the council at its meeting Oct. 6 that the mature male biomass—essentially, the total estimated weight of all mature male snow crabs—dropped another 40% from last year to this year, reaching another record low. All surveyed abundance was at or near all-time lows, she said.

“Overall, (it’s a) pretty dire situation for snow crab,” she said.

There isn’t a clear understanding why the stock is declining so drastically. The Bering Sea experienced a massive marine heat wave in 2019, which is still dispersing, even though sea temperatures are beginning to return to normal now. At the same time, some research has linked the crab mortality event to a combination of the changing sea temperature and the high crab density at the time. Prior to the major mortality event, snow crab stocks were growing.

Though mature crab fell again, especially among mature males — the population that fishermen target — there are some young snow crab in the survey, said Mike Litzow, a researcher and the other co-chair of the council’s Crab Plan Team. There were essentially no immature female crab in the survey last year, and they increased by nearly 8,700% this year; mature females were down 16%, though.

Palof said there are some young snow crab present, but it will take four to five years before those would be mature and could be surveyed again to see if they survive long enough to be harvestable.

Fishermen and other industry stakeholders asked the council to offer as much flexibility to Fish and Game as they could to open even a limited fishery this year. Most who testified were concerned that if the fisheries are closed for multiple years, crews and supporting businesses will move on, essentially dismantling the infrastructure that exists to support the fishery now.

Nikolai Sivertstol, a board member for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, told the council to consider that most of the crab harvesters are small businesses.

“We do not have the cushions to weather years on end of inactivity,” he said. “Our crews will move on. The banks will shun us. The businesses in all the local communities that support us will have to move on, too.”

While several members noted that they did hear and consider the concerns of the fishermen, it was not ultimately up to them about whether to open the fishery — they just set the limits, and then Fish and Game determines the seasons based on its harvest strategy. Council member Bill Tweit said he wished the conversations about how to open a small fishery during times of low abundance could have been happening six months ago, rather than a week before the fishery was due to open.

“At this point, the idea of a limited fishery is very much right now in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “What looks limited to one group may not look limited to another, and one form of a limited fishery may not meet the objectives of another.”

Rachel Baker, a deputy commissioner with Fish and Game who represents the agency on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said the agency does consider the economic and social impacts and is working with the crab industry through the time of low crab numbers.

“I think I speak for all council members in saying that we continue to be very concerned about the low abundance of many Bering Sea crab stocks,” she said.

In addition to the snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab closures, the St. Matthew Island section blue king crab and Pribilof district red and blue king crab seasons will remain closed. The Bering Sea tanner crab fishery will open with a total allowable catch of about 2 million pounds, split between the areas west of the 166 west longitude line and those to the east. The eastern portion will have a TAC of about 1.16 million pounds, while the areas to the west will have a TAC of 850,000, according to Fish and Game.

The Bering Sea tanner crab fishery is scheduled to open October 15.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/12/2022 - 1:23pm