With about a quarter of their quota still in the water, crabbers have been given until the end of the month to fish a particular section of the Bering Sea. And state regulators soon will decide if the entire fishery will continue into June.
"Record sea ice significantly reduced available fishing grounds throughout a large portion of the snow crab season and, as a result, nearly 25 percent of the snow crab total allowable catch has not been harvested," according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.
Fish and Game granted a partial extension of the eastern subdistrict until May 31. It was originally set to close May 15.
All areas are now scheduled to close May 31, but Fish and Game officials in Unalaska, Kodiak and Juneau are pondering whether to let the fishermen drop pots into June, said biologist Britta Baechler in Unalaska. On Monday, she said 57 boats were registered, and 21 had finished fishing. So far, 67.7 million pounds have been harvested but some 23 percent of the available snow crab remains.
"Pretty much anybody involved in the industry is struggling this season," Baechler said.
But Al Mendoza, crab manager at Unisea in Unalaska agreed, said the extension "will definitely help. There's a lot of frustrated fishermen. It's been a long winter season for the fishermen and processors, but everybody's holding strong and trying to get through it."
Sig Hanson, owner of the crabber Northwestern and a star of the television fishing show "Deadliest Catch," said he's finished for the season. If the season's not extended, he said, it will be especially tough on fishermen with leased quota shares.
If fishermen don't reach their quota by the end of the season, there's no refund for fishermen who lease shares. Fishermen on the grounds lose, not the inactive fishermen leasing out their quota from the comforts of home in Seattle or elsewhere.
Under the rationalization program that ended the deadly race for shellfish in the Bering Sea, fishermen own percentages of the season's harvest limit, called quota shares, with the option to let other boats to fish for them for a price.
Fishermen have complained of losing crab pots in the ice that reached south of the Pribilof Islands much of the season. Ice can move pots around and break lines attaching the big steel traps worth about $1,000 to buoys floating on the surface.
"There's quite a few (pots) that are still missing," said Mendoza, adding that the ice has prevented crabbers from searching for them.
In St. Paul, the tugboat Redoubt was hired by crabbers and Trident Seafoods to help crab boats maneuver inside the harbor, serving as an icebreaker to escort crabbers through the ice outside the harbor.
While the ice was forecast to be south of St. George this week, Mendoza said predictions of southwesterly winds next week indicate more favorable fishing conditions may be on the way.
Jim Paulin can be reached a email@example.com. Used with permission of the Dutch Harbor Fisherman.