Bering Sea crab collapse spurs push for stronger conservation measures

For Bering Sea crabber Gretar Gudmundsson, December is a month for preparing his two boats for the winter harvest season.

But not this year. For the first time, the winter snow crab season has been scuttled. The move has upended seasonal rhythms — and the financial stability of a crab fleet already slammed by a two-year shutdown of the fall harvest of red king crab.

“We didn’t ship up any groceries. We didn’t recruit any crew. We’re not laying on fuel. Nothing is happening,” Gudmundsson said.

With both Alaska red king and snow crab stocks at low ebbs, crabbers have been calling for increased conservation measures by other fleets that might harm crab as they pursue their catch.

Gudmundsson, a Seattle resident, is in Anchorage where the North Pacific Fishery Management Council this week will consider what protective measures should go into a plan to help rebuild snow crab populations, and a request to exclude more fleets this winter from a swath of the Bering Sea — known as the “savings zone” — where king crab mate.

The king and snow crab are traditionally the largest Bering Sea crab harvests, pursued by a fleet of some 60 Northwest- and Alaska-based vessels. In 2016, the fleet grossed $280 million and generated revenue in Aleutian and Pribilof island communities where the catch was processed.

Alaska king stocks have been in a yearslong decline. Federal surveys found snow crab collapsed in the aftermath of 2018 and 2019 marine heat waves in the Bering Sea.


Alaska and Washington’s Senate delegations sent a Nov. 17 letter to Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo seeking a federal fishery disaster declaration for the loss of the crab seasons. That would be needed to try to gain congressional approval of financial aid for crews and communities during the final weeks of the lame-duck session.

Gundmundsson is frustrated by the slow place of decision-making by the industry and state and federal officials who serve on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“It’s been like banging your head against a brick wall,” Gudmundson said.

[Live event Dec. 12: Boom and bust in the Bering Sea — and the fate of crab and sockeye in a warming world]

Regulating other fleets

Crabbers are pressing for more restrictions on pollock fleets, which deploy large cone-shaped trawl nets to scoop up more than 3.2 billion pounds annually of this fish in the biggest single-species harvest in North America.

Federal reports released earlier this year — based on analysis of trawl data — documented pollock nets often touching bottom, raising concerns that snow and king crab are crushed and maimed in ways that are hard to quantify because they don’t end up aboard a vessel to be counted by federal observers.

“What’s new is seeing how much bottom contact the pollock nets are having,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Goen proposes more restrictions on the pollock fleet to be included in the conservation plan the council will consider this week.

[Into the ice: A quest for snow crab in a Bering Sea upended by climate change]

The crabbers in September also filed an emergency petition with the Commerce Department to exclude this winter more fishing vessels, including the pollock fleet, from the “savings zone.” The council is expected to vote this week on whether to recommend approval to the Commerce Department.

Goen says an analysis submitted to the council shows an increase in pollock trawling within the “savings zone” since 2014.

This area “was intended to be void of bottom contact by trawling in order to provide an area within the Bering Sea that was refuge for king crab and their habitat,” Goen wrote.

Pollock industry representatives oppose this proposal. They say no evidence suggests the closure would offer significant benefits to king crab. It also would push the fleet into other areas where they would have incidental catches of chinook salmon, herring and other species they are trying to avoid.

Brent Paine, executive director of the pollock fleet’s United Catcher Boats, took aim at the crab fleet’s conservation practices in a letter of opposition.

Paine also takes aim at the conservation practices of crabbers, who for years have discarded some of their catch.

During the 2018 king crab harvest, more than 300,000 crab were estimated to have been discarded and killed in a harvest that retained 629,907 mature males, according to state Department of Fish and Game statistics. The king crab tossed overboard were largely females that can not be retained, or males that didn’t meet minimum size regulations.

Paine also notes some crabbers participate in harvests that use pots to catch cod. That pot-cod fleet also discards crab. This year, even as the king crab season was closed, a fleet of more than 50 cod boats discarded more than 128,000 king crab — half of which were estimated to have died.


“Don’t throw rocks if you live in a glass house,” Paine said.

Goen said research is underway to develop pot gear that will exclude king crab when targeting cod, and the fleet is working to reduce discards.

“We need to look at the pot cod fishery. We need to look at trawlers. We need to be honest about the impacts — so we can manage properly,” Goen said.

[As Bering Sea ice melts, Alaskans, scientists and fishing fleet witness changes ‘on a massive scale’]

‘Too much uncertainty’

Despite the bleak outlook for Bering Sea crab, consumers still have options. including buying imports from a harvest of two stocks of snow crab that dwell in the Atlantic off of Canada.

The populations of the northern Canadian snow crab off Newfoundland used to swing up and down in sync with fluctuations in the Alaska snow crab. But when the warming hit the Bering Sea in 2018 and 2019, cooler temperatures prevailed in the Atlantic, and the Canadian snow crab stocks surged.

Over the long term, Canada’s snow crab stocks also face an uncertain future as oceans warm, said Darrell Mullowney, a research scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. But in the short term, Canadian snow crab is booming.

The 2022 harvest quota of more than 100 million pounds was nearly 20 times higher than the Bering Sea snow crab quota earlier this year.


It is uncertain just when king and snow crab harvests will resume off Alaska.

This winter, the crab fleet will not come to a total standstill. Some boats will drop pots for cod or serve as tender boats to ferry fish back to port. Some will participate in a small harvest of some 2 million pounds of bairdi — which is similar to snow crab. A handful of boats hold rights to catch more than 5 million pounds of golden king crab in a harvest off the Aleutian chain that began this year and will stretch into 2023.

But many Alaska crabbers already are finding other jobs.

Skipper Glenn Casto, from Snohomish County, who fished Bering Sea crab for years, will shift to a deckhand position in the Dungeness crab harvest off Washington.

“I’m too young to sit around,” the 52-year old Casto said, despite his heart remaining up north.

Meanwhile, industry finances are a mess.

Red king and snow crab quota shares — offering the rights to claim part of the annual harvest — were once valuable assets. The catch rights to a pound of king crab could fetch $60, according to Aaron Overland of Dock Street Brokers in Seattle. But that market has imploded, with buying and selling at a standstill.

“There is too much uncertainty,” Overland said. “Trying to identify future revenue streams is a fool’s errand.”

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

Hal Bernton is a former reporter for The Seattle Times and the Anchorage Daily News.