Alaska’s Bering Sea crabbers are reeling from the devastating news that all major crab stocks are down substantially, based on summer survey results, and the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed for the first time in over 25 years.
That stock has been on a steady decline for several years and the 2020 harvest dwindled to just 2.6 million pounds.
Most shocking was the drastic turn-around for snow crab stocks, which in 2018 showed a 60% boost in market sized male crabs (the only ones retained for sale) and nearly the same for females. That year’s survey was documented as “one of the largest snow crab recruitment events biologists have ever seen,” said Dr. Bob Foy, director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Crab Plan Team.
Again in 2019, the “very strong” snow crab biomass was projected at over 610 million pounds, and the catch was set at a conservative 45 million pounds for the 2020 fishery. No Bering Sea crab surveys were done that year due to the Covid pandemic, but the 2021 results indicated the numbers of mature male snow crab had plummeted by 55%.
The stock “seems to have disappeared or moved elsewhere,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of the trade group, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC). The snow crab catch for the upcoming season could be down by 70% and the stock could be classified as “over-fished,” she said, adding that no decisions will be made until the data undergo more scrutiny by plan team and Council scientists.
ABSC estimates the closure of the red king crab fishery and a reduced snow crab catch could cost harvesters well over $100 million. The hit will be felt by roughly 70 vessels, over 400 fishermen, and the processors and fishing communities that rely on the Bering Sea crab revenues.
The crabbers want “bold action” from federal fishery managers. They are calling on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) and NOAA Fisheries to conserve crab habitat and spawning grounds highlighted by scientists over 10 years ago with little resulting action.
The crabbers also want managers “to create meaningful incentives to reduce crab bycatch in other fishing sectors, to reduce fishing impacts on molting and mating crab, and to estimate unaccounted for bycatch from unobserved fishing mortality from bottom and pelagic (mid-water) trawl nets, as well as pot and longline gears.”
Boats fishing the Bering Sea are required to have 100% observer coverage to track what is retained and what is tossed over the side, but it’s what is not observed that most concerns the crabbers. And what goes unseen is not factored into stock or bycatch assessments.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing marine fisheries management in federal waters (from three to 200 miles out), defines unobserved mortality as “fishing mortality due to an encounter with fishing gear that does not result in capture of fish.”
In a February letter to the NPFMC, ABSC highlighted studies showing “that 95-99% of crab in the path of trawl gear go under the footrope escaping capture and some portion of those likely die after contact with the fishing gear. Given this number compared to what is observed as bycatch, the potential for unobserved mortality of crab could be millions of additional pounds of dead crab bycatch.”
A February report by NPFMC scientists, which (unsuccessfully) proposed an amendment to the management plan for crab bycatch in the Bering Sea groundfish trawl fisheries, stated: “Crab may actively escape capture from trawl gear, as they can slip under the trawl itself, or over the sweeps, but the damage from the gear results in mortality or delayed mortality due to injuries. The potential for unobserved mortality of crabs that encounter bottom trawls but are not captured has long been a concern for the management of groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea.” (Witherell and Pautzke, 1997; Witherell and Woodby, 2005).
The report said that “the majority of trawl caught crab PSC (prohibited species catch) occurs when vessels are targeting yellowfin sole. This is the case across all crab species.”