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“Alaska’s crab fleet facing $500 million in losses after Council puts conservation request on ice”. This is stated in the release issued by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the trade association representing independent crab harvesters. “This week, Alaska’s crab industry is absorbing another seismic shock”, they add and warn that many members of the Alaska fleet will face bankruptcy. All after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) canceled Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab harvest for the 2022/23 season.

Bankruptcy on the horizon

When ADF&G released the decision, officials said the move was necessary to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainability of both crab stocks. Bristol Bay red king crab will be closed for the second consecutive year, and Bering Sea snow crab will be closed for the first time in the history of this fishery. In practice, that means this year the fleet will only have a small bairdi crab fishery in the Bering Sea of just over 2 million pounds. According to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, this may be enough for a handful of boats to harvest, but most of the 60-boat crab fleet will be forced to tie up.

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“The fleet is bracing for half a billion dollars in losses going into the second year of a stock collapse. With that loss growing to well over a billion dollars in ripple-effect revenue to processors, support businesses, and communities”, they state. “Many members of Alaska’s fleet will face bankruptcy, including second- and third-generation crabbers whose families are steeped in the culture of this industry. Long-time crew members who have worked these decks for decades will be jobless”, they add. 

Fishermen have also shown their discontent. “This decision just destroyed a fishing business of over 50 years and the crew that have a combined 100 years invested in it”, said Joshua Songstad from the F/V Handler, one of those directly affected. “Our crew of six has a combined 16 children to feed. No fishing model accounts for that”, he added.

Andy Hillstrand from the F/V Time Bandit and the TV show Deadliest Catch speaks in a similar way. “We’re going to have to let people go because there’s no work and we’ve lost the ability to make money for the upkeep of the vessel. Out of the 60-vessel crab fleet remaining since we consolidated years ago, we could lose up to half or more with this decision”, he says.

Unnecessary and late-coming measures

In addition to the economic impact, crab harvesters also feel that they are being treated unfairly compared to other sectors. Last year, the fishermen requested an emergency closure to the bottom trawl to protect an area with lots of female red king crab as a conservation measure. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied that request.

“I am absolutely stunned that the state would do this to the directed crab fishery and not take complementary emergency action through the Council process to restrict other sectors impacts on crab”, said Oystein Lone from the F/V Confidence. “This is devasting to our business, my family, our crews, and local communities. A small opening would have a low impact on the stock and habitat given the minimal footprint of our gear on the bottom and the short amount of time we fish. But it could really help to give us desperately needed funds to survive. The Council did nothing to protect king crab grounds from ongoing habitat destruction and bycatch from both bottom and pelagic trawl fleets, both of which we have evidence that they drag on the bottom and destroy crab and habitat”.

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The independent crab harvesters association agrees. “What the crab industry is facing is heartbreaking and what’s worse is that it is unnecessary. It didn’t have to be this way”, said Jamie Goen, Executive Director for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. “The crab will eventually bounce back and could do so sooner if the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had taken steps to protect the stock, as requested by the fishermen themselves”.

Crabbers have started taking conservation measures into their own hands, asking for emergency action to close certain areas to all fishing gear to protect areas important to crab and their habitat, especially while crabs are in a vulnerable soft shell condition during molting and mating.

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