Snow crab season in Alaska's Bering Sea gets started early

The Bering Sea snow crab fishery is off to an early start in hopes of avoiding sea ice.

"Usually nobody goes fishing until after Christmas. The bulk of the activity usually picks up in January," said Heather Fitch of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska. As of Monday, only "a little bit" of crab had been landed, but more was expected soon, she said.

With crabbers already on the fishing grounds, the U.S. Coast Guard is also off to an early start.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and support personnel flew to their forward operating location in Cold Bay, to safeguard mariners in Southwest Alaska.

With an increased number of vessels operating in the region during the winter and spring seasons for the opilio crab fishery, the deployed Coast Guard aircrews will be able to rapidly respond to mariners in need of assistance. The crews spent most of October and much of November in Cold Bay in support of the red king crab fishery.

'We are being proactive'

"We are being proactive to ensure the safety of mariners by deploying our aircrews back to Cold Bay earlier than normal because there is significant fishing activity in the region," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Doug Watson, of the Coast Guard 17th District response management department. "Historically, the Coast Guard has deployed to Western Alaska in January to support the opilio crab fishery. The forward operating location in Cold Bay eliminates as much as two hours of flight time that a transit from Kodiak requires to respond to cases in Western Alaska during one of the busiest fishing seasons of the year."

Crab fishermen's representative Erling "Jake" Jacobsen of the Inter Cooperative Exchange said he was pleased with the Coast Guard's early deployment.

Fishermen are hoping to beat the ice with an early start, especially with the memory of record-setting ice cover two seasons ago still fresh in their minds, Jacobsen said.

In early 2012, the harbor in St. Paul was closed for extended periods because of heavy ice. Fishermen eventually leased a tugboat to serve as an icebreaker to get crabbers to the Trident Seafoods plant.

Processing in St. Paul or Akutan

The early start focuses on catching northern share crab, which make up about half of the overall quota and all, or nearly all, will be delivered to a processing plant in St. Paul, in the Pribilof Islands, with perhaps a load or two going to Akutan, Jacobsen said.

The north and south regions were established by the Bering Sea crab rationalization program, authorized by the U.S. Congress about 10 years ago. It eliminated competition by creating privately-owned quota shares for boat owners, captains, and processing plants. Critics called it a "giveaway of a public resource," and cite job elimination and slashed pay for crewmembers. But supporters point to greatly reduced loss of life since boats can wait out storms without fear of losing out to competing vessels, Jacobsen said.

Snow crab fishing started back in October, but the shellfish's condition lacked commercial appeal. Recent catches have been higher quality, he said.

Jacobsen expects about 80 boats to participate in the snow crab fishery. While he said it's too early to say how much fishermen will earn per pound, he did say the "price is excellent, and getting better." Final prices are still being negotiated from the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, Jacobsen said.

The red king crab fishery concluded in November after about a month of harvesting the shellfish in heavy steel pots, with 63 vessels participating, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Fitch said 11 boats were registered for the snow crab fishery, and another four that had registered left. The 15 boats: the Bering Hunter, Billiken, Early Dawn, Far West Leader, Fierce Allegience, Handler, Incentive, Kiska Sea, Karin Lynn, Kodiak, Ocean Hunter, Pacific Sounder, Pacific Sun, Scandies Rose, Tempo Sea, and Valiant.

An MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew from Air Station Kodiak is also deployed on the Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau, home ported in Honolulu, Hawaii, and currently patrolling the Bering Sea.

The forward deployed crews receive logistical support from Air Station Kodiak based HC-130 Hercules airplane crews throughout their deployment.

The opilio crab fishery season opened on Oct. 15, and processors are scheduled to open and begin accepting opilio crab catch this weekend. They will remain open until May 15 or until a quota of less than 54 million pounds, issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is caught.

Last season's quota was 66 million pounds. Snow, or opilio, crab weigh about 1.2 pounds each.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.