Laine Welch: Tanner fishery closure hurts small crabbers

FisheriesOctober 19, 2013 

The Bering Sea crab fleet was ready to head to the fishing grounds this weekend. The fishery, which was supposed to open Oct. 15, was delayed when the government shut down and couldn't issue licenses. Skippers of the 80 boats estimated the delay cost each of them $1,000 a day.

Meanwhile, the situation was even worse for small boat crabbers at Kodiak and the westward region because there won't be a Tanner fishery come January.

"It is not unexpected," said Mark Stichert, a shellfish biologist for Fish and Game in Kodiak. "We've been seeing a decline in abundance of legal sized or mature male Tanner crab for the last couple of years."

The closure affects Tanner fisheries at Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula. Stichert said stocks seem to have followed an up-and-down pattern since the late 1990s.

"Beginning in 2006/2007 we saw large recruitment of juvenile Tanner crab, and those crab subsequently matured into the population and into the commercial fishery beginning in 2009 through 2011," Stichert said. "We had a couple of pretty large years, and now those crab are aging out of the population. That's what has led the decline and resulted in closures for next year."

Those good years produced region-wide catches of 3 million to more than 4 million pounds; last January the harvest was less than 1 million pounds. The mid-January fishery is worth several million dollars to the coastal communities. Up to 40 Kodiak boats dropped pots for Tanners and 25 at the Peninsula during the 2013 season. Chignik has been closed for two years.

"It's definitely a bummer," said Kodiak fisherman Tyler O'Brien. "Tanner crab is a nice shot in the arm for the smaller boats in the winter."

Kodiak's resident processing workforce also will feel the pinch of no crab coming into town.

Diving for dollars

Sea cucumbers are a popular delicacy in soups and salads throughout Asia. Right now, 150 divers in Southeast Alaska are competing for a robust 1.5 million-pound cuke harvest.

"It's actually the highest quota since 2000," said Mike Donnellan, lead diver for Fish and Game in Juneau.

Last year, divers got nearly $5 a pound for 1-pound, red sea cucumbers, making the fishery worth $7.5 million at the Panhandle docks.

Kodiak is the only other region of Alaska where a cucumber fishery occurs, though at 140,000 pounds it is far smaller. The 26 divers there are fetching $3.50 a pound for sea cukes, $2 less than last year

Regardless, Lance Parker has dive fished in Kodiak since 1986 and says it is by far his favorite fishery. Parker said a good day for him is diving about 35 to 50 feet, sometimes for as long as eight or nine hours, day or night, plucking as many as 2,000 cucumbers per dive.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state or found at alaskafishradio.com. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.

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