After a 2012 Bering Sea snow crab season that saw unusually severe sea ice inhibit fishermen's efforts to catch almost 89 million pounds of the shellfish, 2013 is shaping up to be much friendlier.
According to Kathleen Cole, a forecaster with the National Weather Service ice desk, this winter was unlikely to match 2012, even before it began. Despite some recent rumors of encroaching ice into the Bering Sea fishery, the situation is better than last year, she said.
"We're just not going to have a year like last year. It's going to be, by no means, that bad," she said. "Last year was something that we'd never seen before, and hopefully something that we'll never see again."
The snow crab fishery season officially begins Oct. 15, but it doesn't really pick up until after the Bering Sea king crab fishery meets its quota, said Chuck Trebesch, a fisheries biologist in Dutch Harbor. The snow crab season continues until either the quota is met or it closes May 15.
By Tuesday, crabbers had already pulled in about 40 percent of this year's quota of about 66 million pounds, which is about 22 million pounds less than last year's maximum catch. Trebesch said the catch was "on pace."
Despite last year's larger quota, it was a tough season for crabbers as sea ice moved into the Bering Sea fishery grounds during January, clogging waterways and threatening already-deployed crab pots. It got so bad for so long that Fish and Game offered to extend the season, which stretched into June. Trebesch said that "it's too early to make any statements" on whether another extension might be needed this season.
While rumors of another bad ice year are, so far, unfounded, it doesn't mean ice isn't a factor, said Cole.
She said that ice can frequently advance and retreat into fishing grounds, though the degree of interference with fishing activities varies from year to year. Last year was particularly bad. "It doesn't always halt fishing, and there have been stretches of time where it didn't come down like this," Cole said. "We just happen to be into a colder stretch right now."
Cole warned that advancing ice over the weekend could prove bothersome, beginning Thursday and going through Saturday. Expect ice at the southern edge to be relatively thin, though.
"The last seven to 11 years have had more ice than normal in the Bering Sea," said Cole, who has been forecasting sea ice for 16 years. "But I remember winters where we didn't hear about it at all, where nobody called asking if it would get in the way of fishing."
That doesn't mean it's not cold in the Bering Sea, though. Bill Wichrowski, better known as "Wild Bill," captain of the crab fishing vessel Kodiak featured on the Discovery Channel reality show "Deadliest Catch," posted a picture to Twitter Sunday of his vessel's icy deck. The National Weather Service predicted "heavy freezing spray" in portions of the Bering Sea through Thursday.
For the latest on sea ice, visit the prediction page for the NWS ice desk.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com