Could the closure of Alaska’s crab fisheries have been prevented?

Snow Crab fishing in the F/V Arctic Lady. Photo: Corey Arnold / Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
Snow Crab fishing in the F/V Arctic Lady. Photo: Corey Arnold / Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Following the announcement of the cancellation of the Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab catch season in 2022, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association said crabbers have begun to take conservation action into their own hands. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) made the cancellation decision for conservation reasons, but they will be the crabbers who will foot the bill. Could their requests to the Council have prevented the closure? Crabbers think so.

Demanding a better management

"Crabbers have started taking conservation measures into their own hands, asking for emergency action to close certain areas to all fishing gears to protect areas important to crab and their habitat", said the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers release. But what are these measures? WeAreAquaculture contacted the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers association to know more.

Their Executive Director, Jamie Goen, explained to us that crabbers have been pushing the Council for years to adopt conservation measures for Bering Sea crab stocks. She told us about measures such as improving bycatch management to create an incentive for other gear types to avoid crab; protecting key habitat areas, protecting areas of high crab density or key male or female populations; calling for pelagic trawl gear to limit their contact with the bottom or change their gear to do less harm to crab and their habitat; or protecting crab during molting and mating. According to her, other countries, such as Canada and Russia, with healthy crab populations, protect the crab during molting and mating.

Jamie Goen, Executive Director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Photo: Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

"Another measure that could be taken is creating dynamic annual closed areas to protect the signal of future hope we have for the snow crab population, called recruitment or small crabs. This would be a localized closed area that could change each year based on where the crabs are", she explained. And concluded, "Better management of fisheries in the Bering Sea in space and time could take fishing pressure off of crab and habitat, especially at vulnerable times in the crab life cycle such as molting and mating".

What about bycatch?

There is certainly no lack of proposals on their part, but would they be compatible with keeping the fishing season open, even with a lower number of catches? "Yes, I think with a mix of these conservation measures, we could both rebuild Bering Sea crab stocks and have a small directed crab fishery while keeping all other fisheries open to catch their allocations, albeit moving to avoid crab or key habitat especially at vulnerable times", Goen said.

Nevertheless, there is a fishery that can get crabs in the area. Despite the cancellation of the crab industry, bycatch is still allowed. We asked the crabbers why this difference. "If I'm being blunt, politics", the Executive Director replied to WeAreAquaculture. "The fisheries that catch crab as bycatch are powerful and have a lot of influence over the process, including the science".

Jamie Goen explains that crab bycatch in other fisheries is reported to be lower than catches in directed crab fisheries. "However, the science also acknowledges that there is what's called 'unobserved fishing mortality' or mortality from coming in contact with fishing gear but not being caught to be observed on deck", she added. And she gave us an example. A trawl dragging along the bottom will catch some crabs, but others will be rolled over by the gear, passing under the net. Those crabs will probably suffer some damage and may die, but they are never caught to be observed and counted on deck. "Some studies in other countries show 95-97% of snow crab go under the net of trawls. The unobserved fishing mortality of crab from bottom and pelagic trawl has the potential to be significant, yet it is assumed to be zero in bycatch management. Even though we know it is not zero", she concluded.

Economic stability needed

According to what the graphic provided by Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers shows [see below], Council scientists have been pointing out the concern and areas that need to be addressed for crabbing for more than 15 years while the red crab population continues to decline. "They had the signals and could have taken action to give red king crab stocks a chance and we might not have ended up with closed fisheries", said Goen.

Bristol Bay red king crab effective spawing biomass graphic provided by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association.

"Snow crab is a different story as it was at record high levels in 2018 and then crashed dramatically in 2021. Managers and scientists didn't see that coming, but for red king crab, it could have been avoided". According to her, in the case of snow crab, the preliminary rebuilding analysis at the October Council meeting showed that allowing a small directed fishery and bycatch doesn't change the rebuilding time. "If that's the case, why then is the directed crab fishery closed this year and bycatch in other fishing sectors allowed at levels up to 4.35 million snow crab, roughly equivalent to 4.35 million pounds? That's about the same as the directed fishery harvested last year", she looked back on. "There isn't a shared burden of conservation among sectors", she concluded.

But the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers are not looking for a confrontation. They are convinced that the science shows there is room to create more economic stability in the crab fishery while rebuilding stocks and not shutting down any other fishing sectors. "Creating economic stability is so important in fisheries and was a goal of the rationalization program we operate under. It helps small businesses plan and it helps markets for the product stay open. Without economic stability, banks aren't willing to help fishermen finance vessels and fishing quota and valuable, reliable markets dry up or are difficult to find", Jamie Goen claimed.

About Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers

The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers is a trade association representing independent crab harvesters who commercially fish for king, snow (opilio), and bairdi (Tanner) crab with environmentally friendly pot gear in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Rationalization Program. There are approximately 60 vessels and 350 fishermen that participate in the fisheries, including communities around the Bering Sea, Kodiak, Anchorage, Homer, and the Pacific Northwest.

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