Catches for Alaska's premier crab fisheries in the Bering Sea could dip this year based on results of annual summer surveys.
An annual report by NOAA Fisheries called "The Eastern Bering Sea Continental Shelf Bottom Trawl Survey: Results from Commercial Crab Species," dubbed the "crab map," shows big drops over the last year in the abundance of legal-size males for both snow crab and red king crab in Bristol Bay. (Only legal males may be retained for sale.)
But there is a bright side. Both stocks appear to have strong numbers of younger crab.
The crab surveys – done since the 1970s – are conducted using trawl nets each June and July, and they cover 140,000 nautical square miles. Data from this summer shows 8.7 million legal red king crab, a 30 percent decrease.
"In 2014, the harvest level was set at 9.98 million pounds, so one likely extrapolation may be a reduction in harvests in the 15 to 25 percent range," said market analyst John Sackton.
An encouraging sign is that 99 percent of the females observed in Bristol Bay had full egg clutches, indicating high mating success.
According to Jake Jacobsen of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents 70 percent of crab harvesters, the value of the 2014 Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, based on dock prices of $6.77 per pound, was nearly $68 million.
Snow crab numbers were down substantially, and Sackton predicted catch reductions "in excess of 20 percent." Last season, 68 million pounds were harvested.
The 2014 value of the snow crab fishery, based on a fishermen's price of $2.04 per pound, was about $139 million at the docks.
Perhaps the best news for crabbers this season was the whopping 15 million pound tanner crab catch, the largest in 20 years. (Bairdi tanners are the larger cousin of snow crab.) This summer's survey showed levels of male tanner crabs increasing, especially in the eastern Bering Sea, where the legal male biomass is estimated to be the second largest since 1994. Most crabbers received $2.42 a pound for their tanners, making that fishery's dockside value worth $36.5 million.
The report also noted that for a second year in a row, average bottom and surface temperatures were warmer in both Bristol Bay and the rest of the eastern Bering Sea than they'd been in recent years
Catch quotas for the 2015 Bering Sea crab fisheries, which open Oct. 15, will be announced in a couple of weeks.
Marine debris and White House Christmas tree
Four thousand ornaments representing Alaska's marine life, landscapes, wildlife, heritage and more will adorn the Capitol Christmas tree this holiday season.
Chugach National Forest was chosen to provide this year's People's Tree, which will sit on the front lawn of the White House. Since 1970, the U.S. Forest Service has chosen a different national forest each year to provide the famous tree.
Ten artists from the honored state are handpicked (in this case, by the Alaska State Council of the Arts) to create ornaments that reflect something special about their particular area. The artists also provide lesson plans and patterns for students and community members to make the ornaments for the People's Tree.
Bonnie Dillard, a retired high school art teacher from Kodiak, is making fish ornaments from marine debris.
"This isn't just a cute idea, this is something that is trying to communicate a problem," Dillard said. "Every time you walk on the beach you see garbage, especially plastics. When people are handling the marine debris while they are making the ornaments, I want the conversation to be about what happens to our garbage. And when people see the ornaments, I want them to think about the things they are throwing away and where it ends up. I'm hoping this will be an avenue to get the word out."
More Alaska ornaments are needed by Oct. 1. Find out how to get yours included here .
Acid oceans road show
An interactive learning tool to help people better understand the impacts of corrosive oceans is traveling to coastal communities across Alaska. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council, along with Cook Inletkeeper, created an ocean acidification educational kiosk that debuted two weeks ago in Homer.
"Even though there have been a lot of scientific presentations in our communities, there hasn't been a regular presence of information. Our goal is to make the science more understandable and more available," said Dorothy Childers, associate director of the council.
The oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide than they did before from the burning of fossil fuels, which makes the water more acidic. That harms such shell-growing marine organisms as crabs, snails and shrimp.
Kiosk visitors can press different buttons to watch and hear scientific facts and fears about ocean acidification from experts and fishermen. Childers said the council hopes to get funding to make the kiosks permanent fixtures at harbors throughout Alaska. For now, the plan is to share this one with other communities.
"We are hoping that communities around the Gulf and Bering Sea will be interested in inviting the kiosk to come to their harbor," she said.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.