Crab quotas slashed in Bering Sea
Bering Sea crab fishermen are looking at a tough year, financially, after quotas were announced last week.
There's no Tanner crab fishing. The snow crab quota's the worst in 12 years, half what it was last year. And while Bristol Bay red king crab isn't way down, it's still 1.5 million pounds less than last year.
"It's not the first time we've had setbacks. Whatever it is, we've got to deal with it the best we can," said Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, representing crab fishermen. "It's a temporary disaster, we hope."
The combined quotas dropped from about 70 million pounds last year to 30 million for the upcoming seasons which opens Oct. 15, and continues through the winter.
The snow crab quota is 21,575,000 pounds, down from 40,611,000 last year. Snow crab numbers haven't been this low since 2004-05, when they were even smaller, at 20.8 million pounds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Last year's Tanner crab quota was about 19 million pounds. This year, it's zero.
Jacobsen holds out slim hope that the Alaska Board of Fisheries will allow a harvest when it meets in December. "It's probably a remote possibility, but it is a possibility," he said.
An emergency appeal for a limited Tanner fishery was rejected on Sept. 29 by Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten.
Cotton nixed the request from the city governments of St. Paul and Unalaska, and Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the political arm of ICE.
"I have determined that an emergency does not exist," Cotton wrote, citing normal cycles causing "natural inter-annual fluctuations." This year's low female Tanner numbers do not represent an "unforeseen or unexpected resource situation."
Jacobsen thinks the summer trawl survey under-counted Tanners, because their movements may have changed due to warmer ocean temperatures. ADF&G biologist Miranda Westphal said Tanners are typically "on again, off again," adding that they were closed to commercial fishing as recently as 2012/13.
In contrast, the snow crab fishery has never been closed for an entire season, she noted.
Given the low crab numbers, crabbers are expected to spend more time fishing for Pacific cod.
One cod fisherman, Josh Trosvig, said about 20 experienced crab deckhands have asked him for cod jobs. Figuring the snow crab season will be over in a month, they're hoping for cod jobs to keep them busy through May, he said.
Trosvig owns two wide-bodied 58-foot fishing boats, Cynosure and Cerullean, known as "Super 8s."
Jacobsen expects the same number of boats will fish for crab this season, despite the quota reductions. In the smaller king crab fisheries, St. Matthews blue king crab is closed, though last year it had a quota of 411,000 pounds. The Pribilof Islands red and blue king crab are closed again this year.
When the Bristol Bay red king crab quota was announced Oct. 3, it came with a warning from Fish and Game about too many legal male crabs tossed out by fisherman last season. Only males can be harvested for people to eat. Females are always off-limits, though their population size helps determine harvest quotas.
"Despite a higher than average number of discarded legal males observed during the 2015/16 season, the 2016/17 TAC was not discounted for this added mortality." TAC means total allowable catch. Westphal said last season's discards were nearly 7 percent of the catch, up from the usual 1 to 2 percent.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game suspects the crab were discarded because of missing legs and other injuries, she said.
If that high rate continues this year, crabbers may pay for it next year.
"Discards of legal-sized red king crab during the 2016/17 season will be closely monitored and could result in a lower TAC for the 2017/18 season," according to Fish and Game.