The Bristol Bay Times
The Bristol Bay Times

Regional council says it won’t tighten fishing regulations in Bristol Bay red king crab savings area

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will not move forward with a request to close the Bristol Bay red king crab savings area to all commercial fishing.

At its February meeting, the regulatory council looked at the effectiveness of closing the 4,000-square-nautical-mile section of the eastern Bering Sea to commercial trawl, pot and longline fishing, but decided not to tighten regulations in the area.

The savings box was established in 1996 as a haven for the massive crab species. It is already permanently closed to bottom trawling, but it remains open to midwater — or pelagic — trawlers, pot fishing and longlining. Non-pelagic, known as bottom trawling, is allowed in a small section within the savings area — known as the savings subarea — when crabbers are harvesting the species.

The council also evaluated a pot gear closure of a large section in the eastern portion of Bristol Bay, known as Area 512, to address drops in the Bristol Bay red king crab stock. All trawling is already prohibited in that area.

The proposed closures were intended to help manage low abundance and recruitment of red king crab. In 2021, the fishery closed for two consecutive years and reopened last fall when surveys showed higher numbers of mature female crab. Still, harvest limits for this season were drastically lower than usual.

The initial closure coincided with the surprising crash of Alaska’s snow crab population. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down the snow crab fishery for the first time in its history in 2022, and it remains closed after regulators declared the stocks “overfished.” Those shutdowns have been a major financial burden to harvesters and municipalities that rely on revenue from the fisheries. The State of Alaska estimated almost $290 million in direct losses for the 2022-23 season closures.

Recent surveys suggest that areas occupied by female crabs were further east, where trawling is prohibited. The council said surveys also show minimal overlap between the presence of crab and the areas where most midwater trawling occurs. Scientific analysis presented to the council at its most recent meeting indicates that closing the area to commercial fishing would likely have some benefits for the struggling crab stocks, but it’s not currently possible to measure the magnitude of the impact.


Still, many harvesters and some scientists are concerned about the impact midwater trawling has on the seafloor habitat of king crab in and around — especially north — of the savings area. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers — a trade association that represents crab harvesters in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands — said in its public comments on the agenda item that its members would like to see the council explicitly focus on protecting king crab habitat and that the council also include more alternatives beyond static closures.

“The magnitude of mortality due to pelagic trawling in the [red king crab savings area/red king crab savings subarea] is unknown; however, the previous [Bristol Bay red king crab] analyses state that pelagic trawl impacts to the seafloor are comparable to non-pelagic bottom trawling,” Jamie Goen, the executive director of the association, said in the written statement to the council.

In written comments following the decision to deny the request, council members said the benefits to red king crab resulting from the closures were uncertain and unquantifiable, and would likely have no effect on the population. Ultimately, they chose not to move forward with considering any static closure, saying it wouldn’t be an effective regulatory move and would result in increased bycatch of salmon, herring, halibut and other crab species.

This wasn’t the first time the council had considered a closure of the king crab’s crucial habitat. At the end of 2022, they recommended against emergency rulemaking for a proposed action that would have temporarily closed the red king crab savings area and savings subarea to all fishing.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers petitioned for the emergency closure of the savings box, which the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration later denied.

This go around, the council took a look at closing the savings area through a standard regulatory process. And while they chose not to move forward with any shutdowns, they did discuss options for implementing dynamic closures based on future or ongoing research. They also tasked staff with digging into options for pelagic trawl gear changes that could minimize destruction of bottom habitat and reduce bycatch and unobserved mortality of species like crab that depend on the seafloor as critical habitat.

The topic of bottom contact by midwater trawlers continued on later into the meeting with the council’s discussion of regulatory definitions of pelagic trawl gear. This topic and the discussion paper on it grew from a June discussion about closures in the Bering Sea to directed fishing to protect Bristol Bay red king crab populations. Last June, council members tasked federal regulators to work w ith fisheries participants to identify possible changes to regulatory language to clarify what areas of the trawl net are to be regulated and to allow for gear innovation, and to resolve any inconsistencies with outdated and current regulations.

The council intended to keep February’s “housekeeping” discussion focused on revisions of regulatory gear definitions and separate from its consideration of options for groundfish area closures.

Still, the majority of public testimony focused on the broader definition of pelagic trawling and the ongoing debate around whether or not pelagic trawl gear can be considered “midwater.”

Several stakeholders, including commercial harvesters, fisheries conservationists, scientists and coastal community representatives wrote in or spoke at the meeting to urge the council to revise gear performance standards that would protect benthic organisms, like crab and their seabed habitat from bottom contact by pelagic trawling. Pelagic trawl gear performance standards are the enforceable guidelines meant to limit the time a pelagic trawl net spends on the seafloor without completely prohibiting bottom contact.

Council member Nicole Kimball acknowledged the disconnect between the more broadly-focused public comments on trawl performance standards and the council’s motion to remove outdated text and allow for specific gear innovations.

“We were trying to differentiate that portion from what [council member and NOAA Alaska Regional Administrator] Mr. Kurland’s motion just was — those kinds of housekeeping amendments — from something that really looks at the pelagic gear definition and tries to describe a process to move past the current regulatory definition, potentially change that definition,” Kimball said at the meeting.

Beyond Kimball’s comment, the council didn’t take any formal action to acknowledge that public testimony. They had previously moved to develop framework for dynamic closures and crab avoidance measures for various gear types, using in-season information from ongoing research. They will also review options for changes to pelagic trawl gear performance standards following the staff’s recently tasked discussion paper.

The council will meet again April 4 to April 9.