The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is off to a slow start compared to last year, according to Miranda Westphal, shellfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska. The season opened Oct. 15, and on Monday, just over a week into the fishery, only 1.5 million pounds had been landed. In the same time period last year, the boats had hauled in 6 million pounds.
The fishery's performance, though, is not unexpected, and is in line with what biologists learned during pre-season surveys. She said 52 boats were fishing on Monday, and a total of 60 had registered. Part of the reason for the slow pace, she said, is that the king crab have moved eastward and into a smaller area of concentration, farther into Bristol Bay.
The average number of crab in a pot was 22, while the average number for the entire past season was 38, according to Fish and Game. The average red king crab weighs between six and seven pounds.
The Bristol Bay red king crab quota is 6.6 million pounds, a 22-percent decline from last year.
On one upbeat note, there is a quota this year for Bering Sea Tanner crab, but only in the western district, at 2.5 million pounds. Last year the entire fishery was closed, and would have been again this year, if not for policy changes made at the May meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, according to Westphal.
The new policy lowers the female threshold limit. Under the previous harvest strategy, both districts would have remained closed this year, she said. The Alaskan Bering Sea Crabbers, with the support of the local governments of St. Paul and Unalaska, lobbied for the new policy giving biologists more flexibility in quota setting for bairdi Tanner crab which weigh, on average, about 2.4 pounds.
At least there is a Tanner season, even with a small quota which is "better than nothing," said Tyson Fick, executive director of ABSC.
"It was disappointing and expensive for processors, and harvesters alike, to forgo a bairdi crab season last year. However, we have seen great progress since then with ADF&G staff working cooperatively with the Bering Sea Research Foundation, National Marine Fisheries Service and industry to make some tweaks in the existing harvest strategy," according to ABSC.
The tweaking included "changing reference years to match the federal model, more accurately defining a mature female crab, and allowing for some flexibility for managers in years of relatively high male abundance paired with low female populations, such as we have seen recently."
Early reports indicate good fishing for Tanners. According to Westphal, a few boats had already started fishing Tanners this month, with positive results. Confidentiality rules prevented more detailed information, as there were fewer than three vessels participating.
The other big Bering Sea crab fishery, likewise, took a big hit when quotas were announced earlier this month.
The Bering Sea opilio snow crab fishery was cut by 12 percent, with a quota of 18.9 million pounds, down from 21.6 million in the previous season. While the official opening date is also Oct. 15, the fishery doesn't usually start in a big way until January, although lately some boats have started as early as November.
The snow crab fishery has been in a continuing state of decline for the past seven years, since 2007, said Westphal. Two years ago, during the 2015-16 season, the catch was 40.6 million pounds for the little opies that weigh about 1.3 pounds per animal.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.