NOAA denies emergency protections sought by Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers

Red king crab. Photo: Bri Dwyer / Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
Red king crab. Photo: Bri Dwyer / Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

NOAA Fisheries denied the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers' (ABSC) request for emergency conservation measures to protect Bristol Bay red king crab after the crab fishery was closed for the second consecutive year. The resolution claims the request did not meet the necessary criteria to determine that an emergency exists. The conservation measures requested by the ABSC included closing the fishery to all fishing gear for six months, from January 1 to June 30, 2023. In its response to NOAA's decision, the ABSC notes as particularly serious the fact that the announcement was made to coincide with the opening of the pollock fishery, as it includes an increase in catches, which, in its view, "will increase impacts and harm on crab and crab habitat"

Requirements are not met

In its response to the request for emergency action to close the red king crab savings area and subarea on Bristol Bay, NOAA Fisheries said that the request does not meet the criteria necessary to determine that an emergency exists. "Specifically, the available information does not support a finding that the proposed emergency regulations would address the low abundance and declining trend of mature female Bristol Bay red king crab", it stated. According to the release, after exploring "the best scientific information available as it applies to this request", the Council decided not to recommend emergency action on the requested closure of all fishing gear during the first six months of 2023. 

The decision has concerned Alaska crabbers, especially when, they say, "their denial letter admits that it would have provided benefits to crab". After calling the situation "unbelievable", the ABSC said, "We have science and data proving this action would help crab at a time when the stock needs it. The agency chose not to use the best available science to help a struggling crab resource and a dwindling industry and communities even though the action would not harm other fishing sectors nor increase bycatch of species of concern like salmon that already have bycatch protections in place".

Two opposing fisheries?

In their response to NOAA Fisheries' resolution, crabbers claim in their application they provided information on how pelagic or midwater trawl gear is actually on the ocean floor between 40 and 100 percent of the time in large areas of the Bering Sea. "This damaging fishing is happening at times when crabs are soft shell and vulnerable, when they're molting and mating between January through June", they stated. The ABSC thinks that with climate change, increasing uncertainty, and increased fishing pressure from large industrial fisheries, there is an immediate need to figure out how to better manage Alaska's fisheries. "If what Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers proposed isn't the answer, then someone needs to bring the answer forward quick because status quo isn't working", they said.

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

Jamie Goen, Executive Director of ABSC, went further in her statements and pointed directly to the pollock fishery. "Crabbers are dismayed and deeply disappointed that NOAA Fisheries denied protections for dwindling crab stocks on the same day they opened pollock fisheries with increased harvest limits and no additional crab or habitat protections", she said. "It's unbelievable given the agency provided new information over 2022 showing the pollock fishery's gear is on the bottom up to 100% of the time and their area swept has increased in recent years, particularly in areas important for crab stocks and at times when crab are vulnerable with molting and mating. And this with gear that has the potential to be more damaging than bottom trawl gear which has made some modifications to reduce their bottom impacts", she added.

Actions to help crab stocks recover

However, despite denying the request for emergency protections, NOAA Fisheries has stressed that it remains concerned about "the ongoing impacts of the low crab abundance in Alaska on crab fishermen and communities". That is why, together with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it is supporting an urgent cooperative research project focused on Bristol Bay red king crab, something that has been positively valued by the ABSC, although with nuances. "These funds for financial relief and research are important parts of crisis response but we must also make sure we are addressing the core of the issue- responsive management actions to help crab stocks recover", they said.

Likewise, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers have used their statement to express their gratitude for the recent fishery disaster declarations and allocations, once again. "Congress and the Secretary of Commerce recognize the magnitude of what the crab industry is facing, and we appreciate their action in record time. Once received, that financial relief will be helpful to weather the crisis", they claimed.

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