Bering Sea crabbers started their 2019-20 season this week with a mixed harvest bag and an uncertain future for their fisheries.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which collaboratively manage the state’s crab fisheries, announced the catch limits and overfishing limit for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Bristol Bay crab fisheries last week, just in time for the fisheries to open Oct. 15.
While the eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery’s total allowable catch is up, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery’s is down and there won’t be a Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery at all. The St. Matthew Island blue king crab and Pribilof blue and red king crab fisheries will remain closed due to stock depletion.
Most of these were not terribly surprising to many crab fishermen and fishery stakeholders. The exception was in the Tanner crab fishery — also called the bairdi fishery, after the crab’s scientific name, said Jamie Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association.
“I would say we were surprised that we’re not having a bairdi fishery,” she said. “It’s discouraging, because our crab stocks in general are declining.”
The survey data collected in the Bering Sea District Tanner crab fishery showed the stock didn’t have enough mature crab to justify a fishery, according to survey data provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
ADFG announced that there would be no fishery on Oct. 6, citing a lack of mature male crab biomass in the survey data. That means no Tanner crab can be kept in the snow crab fishery, either.
The Tanner crab fishery has seesawed since rationalization was implemented there in 2005. The fishery was open through 2010, when it was determined to be overfished and closed. After it reopened in 2013, the total allowable catch, or TAC, climbed until 2016, when the fishery was closed due to a lack of available mature female biomass, according to the survey that year.
The fishery west of 166 degrees West longitude reopened in 2017-18 and 2018-19, with TACs of 2.5 million pounds and 2.4 million pounds, respectively; the fishery east of that line has been closed since 2016.
The survey data provided to the North Pacific council determined that the Bering Sea Tanner crab stock is not overfished, but biomass of male crabs has been steadily declining.
“Since 2014 the trend has been a steady decline, with male biomass currently at its lowest point (28,000 (tons)) since 2000,” the survey states.
The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been going through a similar decline over time. Though it’s not closed this year, the TAC is set at 3.797 million pounds, about 12 percent less than last year’s TAC. About 3.4 million pounds is allocated to individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holderss and 379,700 pounds to Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups, according to ADFG.
The survey data provided to the council notes that environmental conditions are likely playing a role in the red king crab’s decline, depressing recruitment. Crab stocks in Alaska generally spiked in the 1970s before swinging low again in the 1980s, then high again in the 1990s.
“Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the survey report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.”
The downward trend in the red king crab fishery is particularly concerning for the fleet. Wild Alaska red king crab commands a high market price and is consistently one of the highest-value fisheries in the United States. Ex-vessel prices have nearly doubled in the last 10 years, rising from an average of $5.11 per pound in 2008 to $9.27 per pound in 2018, according to Fish and Game.
“It’s our highest-value stock,” Goen said.
The Eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery is a bright spot, though. Recent survey data has shown strong recruitment, and the 2020 TAC is set at just more than 34 million pounds — about 23 percent more than last year — apportioned with about 30.6 million pounds to IFQ fisheries and about 3.4 million pounds to CDQs, according to Fish and Game.
The stock was previously declared overfished in 1999 and has steadily increased since, according to survey data provided to the council. After the observed mature male biomass dropped to an all-time low in 2017, it has increased again as a large recruitment moves through the age classes.
The boost in the eastern Bering Sea snow crab biomass has helped offset some of the downturns in the fishery, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in the fleet about the future, Goen said.
“It’s ocean acidification, it’s the warming ocean conditions, lack of sea ice, and all the data unknowns,” Goen said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty among the fleet. We’re definitely looking to the science. We’re trying to understand better how (the crab) move, and these stocks are moving further north now from where they normally are… I would say it’s too soon to know what the crab fishers are doing.”
There are a lot of unknowns about the factors affecting crab life cycles, recruitment and maturity. Goen pointed to an ongoing National Marine Fisheries Service study using saildrones to track tagged red king crab, gathering more information about seasonal movement, habitat use and interactions with groundfish and trawl fisheries, as well as how crab movement is changing amid changing ocean conditions. If the study proves successful, it may be expanded to other crab stocks.
Strong demand is pushing prices for crab higher, according to a presentation by the McDowell Group economist Garrett Evridge at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands meeting in Anchorage this week.
However, threats to the market include tariffs overseas — particularly in China, one of Alaska’s three largest trading partners in seafood — and increasing competition. About 70 percent of the world’s supply of red king crab comes from Russia, while only 10 percent to 15 percent comes from Alaska. Similarly, Alaska produces about 10 percent of the world’s snow crab supply, while Canada produces 45 percent, according to the presentation.
Hannah Lindoff, the international program director for ASMI, wrote in an email that the tariffs have driven Chinese consumers toward Chilean and Russian king crab and Canadian snow crab.
“Traditionally, crab has been one of the most preferred seafood products in both mainland China and Hong Kong and demand outstrips supply for live king crab into Hong Kong,” she said. “Prior to the current trade situation, Alaska snow crab was an especially popular item at hotel restaurant buffets.”
However, she added that recent concerns in Hong Kong about high metal levels in European brown crab have driven a shift toward Alaska seafood. Additionally, Evridge wrote in an email that some of the downward trend in red king crab can be replaced by Southeast’s golden king crab fisheries, where the stocks are doing somewhat better.
“One thing that’s unique about the current period is that golden king crab volume is higher than red crab—it’s not usually like that,” he wrote. “Some substitution can occur between the two species. But the golden variety is smaller and generally more difficult to handle as it has sharper spines.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]