Bristol Bay king crab fishery set to open with a record-low quota

Bering Sea commercial crabbing starts this week, with the smallest quota for Bristol Bay red king crab in more than 30 years at 4.3 million pounds, a 35 percent decrease from last year's 6.6 million pounds.

The last time there was such a low number was in 1985, at 4.1 million pounds, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Ethan Nichols in Unalaska.

Nichols expects fewer boats fishing this year, with fishermen combining quotas onto one boat that otherwise would have been fished by two vessels.

At least there is a red king crab season, despite earlier fears of a complete cancellation, according to Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty.

"We wish it was more, but we're happy there's a king crab season," said Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Seattle-based Intercooperative Exchange, which negotiates prices for the crab fishing fleet.

The season will open Monday with red king crab, followed by snow crab toward the end of the year.

On a brighter note, the snow crab quota of 27.6 million pounds is up 45 percent from last year's 19 million, according to Fish and Game.

And there will be a Tanner crab fishery in the western district, which wouldn't have happened two years ago.

That's because a lobbying effort by fishermen led by Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the political arm of the Intercooperative Exchange, with the support of Fish and Game, resulted in the May 2017 adoption by the Alaska Board of
Fisheries after the closure of both districts the prior year.

"Both the eastern and western Bering Sea Tanner crab fisheries would have been closed for 2018-19 using the old harvest strategy due to being below the female threshold," according to Nichols.

The Tanner quota is 2.4 million pounds, a 2 percent decrease from last year's 2.5 million pounds in the western district, west of 166 degrees west longitude between Unalaska and Akutan Islands. The eastern district remains closed.

Jacobsen said the trade war between the U.S. and China will have little effect on the crab fishery, since most of the product goes to domestic markets and Japan, although Chinese consumers will pay more because of the tariffs imposed by China in retaliation for President Donald Trump's new taxes imposed on imports from China.

The U.S. import taxes don't matter because Alaska crab is not re-exported back to the United States from China, he said. Various groundfish and salmon from Alaska are re-exported back to the U.S. after processing by low-wage Chinese labor.

A new regulation starting this year won't cause fishermen to lose financially valuable crew share quotas awarded under crab rationalization, though it would have if they hadn't sold out or gone fishing. The rules require that fishermen make at least one trip within three years to keep their quotas, and last year there were numerous fishermen making a single trip to keep their crab quotas, Jacobsen said.

Other fishermen who didn't want to keep fishing simply sold their quotas three years ago, he said. The new rule applies to only 3 percent of the total Bering Sea quota for active fishermen.

This article originally appeared in the Bristol Bay Times and is republished here with permission.