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Faced with the difficult situation they tackle after the closures in Alaska’s snow and red king crab fisheries in the Bering Sea, crabbers have chosen to take action. “We have a plan to manage fisheries in the Bering Sea to keep all fisheries sustainable and resilient – even in the face of climate change”, says Jamie Goen, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) Executive Director. The proposal is based on three main points and, according to her, “executing this plan will take true leaders who are willing to evolve our rigid management, science, and governance systems and it will take collaboration among all fishing sectors, scientists, and agencies. It won’t be easy but it is absolutely possible”.

A defining moment in U.S. fisheries management

This is the view of ABSC, the trade group representing Bering Sea crab fishermen. In their release, they point out that fisheries are racing against time to adapt to climate change and growing uncertainty across the country. “This is a defining moment in U.S. fisheries management”, claims their Executive Director. “We must focus on what we can control: helping hard-working fishing families and coastal communities and using the information we have to make better, more balanced, holistic management decisions”, Goen adds.

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In the North Pacific, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers proposes a three-prong approach for crab and similar disasters: provide rapid financial relief, develop adaptive and responsive management, and bolster continued science and research. “Alaska’s snow crab fishery is the perfect test case for innovating these crisis responses”, they state.

First point: rapid financial assistance

“We need congressional support to build a more responsive financial relief system, but we also have no time to waste”, the ABSC claims. “An effective financial relief program must put money into the pockets of fishermen, and affected fishing communities, within six months”. This approach, mirroring that used by farmers after a crop failure or by communities after a hurricane or flood, would help fishermen keep their family businesses afloat, which, they claim, are critical to the success and well-being of U.S. coastal communities.

In collaboration with Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers – and ten other organizations representing communities, fishermen, and processors -, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy has already requested a fishery disaster declaration in a letter sent to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “We need the Secretary to approve the request. We also need Congress to make money available in the annual federal budget. And we then need the state to create a plan for allocating any money received. Even expedited, this existing process typically takes years to get financial relief to fishermen”, the ABSC says.

Second point: adaptive and responsive management

The second point of the Alaskan crabbers’ plan concerns a more adaptive and responsive fisheries management system. In their view, the current one “is mired in decades of bureaucratic and legal processes that drive towards inaction and status quo”, and so they call for a new system that encourages and rewards conservation and swift action. As an example, they recall that the ABSC has been recommending measures to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for years that would help better manage and conserve Alaskan crab stocks. “These proposals are consistently denied even in the face of growing evidence that these actions would have helped crab stocks. But we won’t give up fighting to rebuild these crab stocks that our livelihoods depend on”.

In their view, a more “holistic” approach than simply closing the directed crab fishery – which would cost the U.S. economy over a billion dollars according to their estimates – would be to share the burden of conservation among the fishing sectors that affect the stock. “To date, the Council, the state Fish and Game Commissioner, and NOAA Fisheries, have not taken additional meaningful actions on any other fisheries that impact Bering Sea crab and habitat”, they state. “There is a better way to manage Bering Sea fisheries, one that rebuilds stocks, supports fishing communities, balances the impacts across all fishing sectors, and keeps everyone fishing, including the directed crab fishery”.

Third point: continued science and research

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The third and final point of the ABSC plan remarks that, although rapid action is required, this does not detract from the need for continued science and research. From their point of view, not only is it necessary to continue funding science, but it is also necessary to make better use of the information that this research provides. And they make an offer. “Our crabbers are ready to use their vessels as research platforms to better understand crab movement, habitat, and patterns of distribution for both juveniles and females. With fisheries closed, captains and their crews are eager to get moving on meaningful research this season”.

Alaska’s Bering Sea crabbers are fully willing to cooperate, but they make one final point. “We can’t let the promise of the future stall us from taking steps forward now. The status quo is not working, and crab stocks have collapsed. We must start using the information we have to act now while we continue to learn and adapt”. In their opinion, this can be done with innovative thinking, partnerships, and new ways of doing business. But they warn, “it will take a willingness to find a better path forward to rebuild crab stocks and fisheries resilience in the face of climate change and growing uncertainty”.

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