This winter will mark the first time in the history of U.S. management that the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will be closed.
While other crab stocks have been declining in the North Pacific for years, the snow crab fishery’s collapse is doubly shocking for the industry. Not only is it one of the larger crab fisheries by volume in Alaska, it has also gone from booming and healthy to overfished and collapsing within five years, with little warning or clear explanation. Fishermen who invested in permits and boats less than five years ago are now looking at bankruptcy.
Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the trade organization representing the industry, has estimated the direct financial losses at about $500 million. Adding in the ripple effects to the economy, that estimate rises to about $1 billion. Jamie Goen, the executive director of ABSC, said fleet members have expressed frustration with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s past inaction on crab conservation as well as sadness going into this closure.
“(There is) deep sadness and shock with what we’re facing right now,” she said. “I think there was hope there would at least be a small fishery to keep our guys surviving and vessels working.”
The council heard and agreed to set maximum catch limits, which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game followed with the announcement of a total closure for both the Bering Sea snow crab fishery and Bristol Bay red king crab. This is the second year in a row for Bristol Bay red king crab, which has been declining for more than a decade, but this is the first Bering Sea snow crab closure in the history of U.S. management, Goen said.
Just prior to the pandemic, survey numbers from the snow crab population looked healthy enough for managers to raise catch limits and to tempt crew members to buy into the fishery. That was a sign of a healthy fishery, Goen said, which was also rationalized — a federal process designed to make sure a fishery is adequately conserved and managed while allowing for maximum sustainable use. During the pandemic, there was no survey conducted, so the next available data came from the survey in 2021. That was what showed a near-complete stock collapse and a nearly 90% cut in the total allowable catch for last season.
This year’s survey was even worse. Nearly all groups in the survey showed historic drops, with the exception of immature female crab, and managers are now working on a stock rebuilding plan that will likely take many years to see through. In the meantime, crabbers either can’t fish or have very small quotas, which won’t be enough to sustain them.
“We’re facing an industry’s extinction,” Goen said. “It’s the independent family businesses. It’s the second- or third-generation fishermen (we’re losing).”
The closure this year presents the industry with potentially major damage. When the boats are tied up, crew members may choose to move on and not be available next year. With an industry like crab, which relies on experience to weather the difficult conditions in the Bering Sea winters, that’s a huge loss, Goen said.
The two biggest crab processing communities in the Bering Sea — Unalaska and St. Paul — are also concerned about the impact. Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. said in a letter to the council that the city is concerned about its harvesters, as well as the associated businesses at the port, being able to survive these cuts and closures. St. Paul is even more vulnerable: Crab landings and processing typically account for about 85% of the city’s revenues. Under the current projections, St. Paul was expecting a loss of about 52% overall compared to 2021, with the crab losses offset somewhat by the shared fishery tax program through the state.
Phillip A. Zavadil, St. Paul’s city manager, wrote to the council that the city will “basically be kept afloat” by those taxes, and the situation in 2023 is likely to result in even further cuts.
“Over the mid to long term, should this status persist, it will impact municipal services, the City’s ability to pay debts and obligations, and its ability to finance or provide local matches to future harbor and other infrastructure projects, necessary to maintain Saint Paul Island’s participation in the Bering Sea fisheries,” he wrote.
St. Paul’s community development quota fishing group, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, has also seen a major revenue drop because of the cuts in crab catch limits. Heather McCarty, the lobbyist for the association, said the organization is looking for ways to diversify, but has much of its portfolio tied up in crab harvesting and processing quota.
“We are losing on three different levels,” she said. “We are losing on our portion of the CDQ quota, we’re losing the revenues from our investment in harvester quota and processing quota.”
The group is also dependent on the infrastructure from the crab processing industry for its halibut catch, another major part of the industry in the region. Right now, the group is planning to send out vessels to participate in the very limited tanner crab fishery, which only has about 2 million pounds available this year, and in the Aleutian golden king crab fishery, McCarty said.
“I think people expect to not make very much money,” she said. “But there are many things (to fishing) ... like keeping the crew lubricated, keeping the boat lubricated, things that have to keep operating.”
There are some vessels in the crab fleet that may do the same, Goen said — while some may tie up, others may go out for the small Tanner crab quota not expecting to make much money, but just to keep the boats operating and the crews paid. However, they can’t keep doing that if the closures and tight quotas go on for years. In the meantime, ABSC is working on getting a disaster declaration for both Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab, which could put money in fishermen’s hands to help them through.
However, fisheries disaster processes can take years from the time the request is granted to when money actually makes into people’s hands — and that’s too long, Goen said. While the fleet is looking at some other options for revenue, such as using crab vessels for research and diversifying into other fisheries where possible, ABSC is working on a potential avenue to get that disaster funding faster.
“We need money in pockets within six months to a year, much like what farmers get or communities get when a hurricane comes through,” Goen said. “Fisheries disaster funding ... takes two to four years. Our small family businesses are going to go out of business by that time.”