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Bering Sea snow crabbers prevail over stubborn ice enroute to quota

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With receding sea ice fully opening the snow crab fishing grounds, it’s likely that a little extra time fishermen received was enough to catch all of their quota, even with some problems with forbidden females.

Bering Sea opilio snow crab fishermen were on track early this week to catch the entire quota by Friday’s extended deadline, according to shellfish biologist Heather Fitch of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.

“It’s going awesome,” she said earlier this week, with only 2 million pounds remaining from an 88.9 million pound quota.

The previous week was highly productive, with 7.1 million pounds harvested, Fitch said.

More than half the 72 boats had finished fishing, while 34 were still picking pots, she reported. “A lot of boats are checking out each day. It’s really tapering down,” Fitch said.

Normally, the opilio snow crab season is over by March or April. But this year was different because of ice covering the fishing grounds for much of the season, denying fishermen access to the little opilio, which average 1.2 pounds.

The fishery was set to close on May 31, but Fish and Game gave fishermen a couple of extra weeks, until June 15.

“Record sea ice significantly reduced available fishing grounds through a large portion of the Bering Sea snow crab season. Extensive ice coverage has persisted into mid-May resulting in 23 percent of the snow crab total allowable catch unharvested,” according to the Fish and Game press release announcing the extension.

Fishing improved in late May, Fish and Game biologist Britta Baechler said last week. That’s when the catch per unit of effort (CPUE), which records the number of crab per pot soared to 330 opies up from 190 the week before.

“The CPUE just went through the roof,” she said. “It’s a happy ending to an incredibly long, drawn out season,” Baechler added.

The extension may have pushed fishing season into crab-mating season, because last week numerous boats were fined for illegally landing female crabs. Only male crabs can be harvested, and the two sexes don’t usually mingle outside of mating season. The rules require females to be pitched back into the ocean, if caught in a crab pot. But in their haste to catch their quota, anxious fishermen may not have been paying close attention to crustacean gender distinctions.

Fitch said crabbers had been getting better at avoiding the females, and sometimes moving a short distance eliminated any problem, she said.

The extended season, however, is likely to produce valuable biological data on the movements of female crabs, information unavailable in a normal year when the fishery closes two months earlier, Fitch observed.

Jake Jacobson, executive director of the Inter Cooperative Exchange Super Cooperative in Seattle, said an extension was needed for his group, representing about 75 percent of the opilio quota, because of the ice nightmare. It surrounded St. Paul Island, where crab is processed.

“The ice has just been terrible,” Jacobson said in February.

The Homer tug Redoubt was hired through a partnership of ICE and Trident Seafoods, with each paying half the cost. The tug not only performed ice breaking and docking assistance to boats in the harbor, it also helped boats navigate around ice floes five miles from the St. Paul harbor entrance, said Trident official Paul Padgett.

The ice closed St. Paul harbor, and consequently, crab processing at Trident’s plant. Some of the plant’s 400 employees were temporarily dispatched to the Trident plants in Akutan and Sand Point, where processing continued.

Jacobson said the final price paid to crabbers won’t be determined until later, after the season and based on sales results. The $1.88 a pound posted by Unisea was only a tentative “go fishing” price. Last year’s final price was $2.41 per pound of snow crab, he said.

This story first appeared The Dutch Harbor Fisherman.