Bristol Bay Season Echoes Derby Days

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10 years ago a Bristol Bay red king crab fisherman could head out for three or four days and come home with a year’s salary in his pocket.

After the fishery was rationalized, it seemed unlikely that was ever going to happen again.  Until this year.

When the season started, things weren’t looking good for Bristol Bay.  The quota was cut by 47 percent this year and the pre-season abundance survey showed a continued decline in crab stocks.  Some crabbers were predicting this would be the last opener for at least a few years. But as the season progressed, things started looking better.

To start with, fishermen pulled up a lot more red king in each pot this year than in recent seasons.  The three-year average is 20 legal crabs per pot.  This year’s preliminary number is 32 or almost 40 percent more.

Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Heather Fitch says it’s hard to say why the catch rate was so much higher.

“I really wouldn’t want to speculate on that.  It could be that crab were just in areas where they weren’t in previous years – I heard that from a few members of the fleet – which could have to do with the temperature over the summer.  It could have to do with maybe the population is doing better than we thought.  There’s a lot of things that play into it that I really couldn’t speculate as to why we’re getting such high catch rates this year.”

Captain John Hansen says he did notice boats were finding crab in places they hadn’t before, but cautioned that the reduced quota is probably padding the numbers.

“If everybody was catching twice as much, I’m sure by the end of that it would look pretty skinny.”

Bill Prout is skipper of the Silver Spray.  He says the area he fished seemed to have an abundance of crab, even with multiple vessels picking it over.

“We set pots back four times and still had good catch rate in them.  And some other boats fished in that area, left and new ones came in and still had good fishing.  So it just looked like there was a good abundance of crab.”

It might be hard to say how much influence the reduced quota had on the catch rate, but it had a pretty straightforward impact on the price.

Crab broker Rob George says the final dock price is going to be around ten dollars and fifty cents per pound.  That’s almost three dollars more than last year and a new record for the fishery.  That would seem like a good thing, but skipper Bill Prout says the higher prices make him nervous.

“You know, it’s always nice to see a high price, but there’s always some repercussion.  Gets things too out of line and it just kind of throws the balance of things off, I believe.”

Balance is something crabbers talk about a lot these days, both in terms of money and fish.  Here’s captain John Hansen again.

“Ultimately, the bottom line is that the way this fishery is run now, that everybody is vested in this industry and they want to look after it so we can fish every year and not go to this boom and bust cycle like it used to be years ago.”

That balance can be a hard thing to achieve with a dynamic resource.  It’s still up in the air whether the fishery will be closed next season.  Area Management Biologist Heather Fitch says it really depends on the results of the federal trawl survey that happens each summer.

“The survey data gets plugged into a model and that’s what we use to determine the total allowable catch each year and that’s where we get the relatively abundance indexes for the fishery.”

And sometimes that survey is at odds with what fishermen see out on the grounds, as was the case this year.  So really, it’s hard to say what the future holds for Bristol Bay.

While the red king season might have been unusually short, fishermen will probably face the reverse situation when they go after snow crab in January. The quota for that fishery nearly doubled this year to almost 90 million pounds, which means it’s unlikely any boats are going to have a one-trip season for snow crab.

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