What happened to Kachemak Bay shellfish?

King crab caught on the NOAA ship Miller Freeman in 1967. (Public domain photo by Steve Nicklas, NGS/RSD)

Kachemak Bay was once abundant with crab, shrimp and other shellfish species. But by the early 1990s, populations hit rock bottom. Now a scientist and a college student are hoping to find out more about what happened. But they’re not looking for clues in the water. They want to hear from fishers and those who were in the fishing industry at that time.

Homer resident Mike DeVaney flipped through a photo album from the 1980s and pointed to a picture of someone holding a large king crab.

“There’s a nice-looking king crab, and the king crab there was primarily the biggest money we made,” he said. “Dungeness was second.”

DeVaney said fishing in Kachemak Bay was good up until the 1990s, when stocks completely crashed. But he said the fishers could see signs that shellfish populations were on the decline long before then.

“In the mid-80s, you could definitely see that there was not as many. But you got to remember every year we were having more and more fishermen get into the fisheries,” he said. “But the mid-80s, you knew it was dropping.”

Mike DeVaney’s photo from the 1980s of someone holding a king crab.Mike DeVaney’s photo from the 1980s of someone holding a king crab. (Photo courtesy Mike DeVaney)
There are a ton of theories about why shellfish have mostly disappeared from Kachemak Bay, ranging from the rise of salmon hatcheries to ecological changes. For DeVaney, he thinks that fishers were part of the problem.

“Some of us didn’t follow the rules the right way,” he said. “In other words, we might have had too many pots, more than we were allowed. And so the combination of our greediness is what hurt us the most.”

Asked if he thought that he might be overfishing at the time, he said, “Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely. We got too doggone good at it, and we knew it was going down.”

Former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Bill Bechtol agreed that overfishing likely played a part, but he said there were other reasons for shellfish declines, including management of the fisheries and the increase of ground fish species like cod that utilize similar habitat.

“Well it’s obviously a combination of factors,” he said. “You can’t find one smoking gun pointing to the crash of all the populations. We had this temperature going on, the temperature change, the regime shifts of the population. The whole ecosystem is changing.”

These are the type of stories that Kris Holderied wants to hear. She’s the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Kasitsna Bay Laboratory based in Kachemak Bay. Holderied and a Kachemak Bay college student, Jill Burnham, plan to host small group conversations with fishers and those who worked in and around Kachemak Bay shellfish fisheries. They may eventually invite community members to join in on the conversations and may kick off a future discussion with a live storytelling event.

Holderied said those conversations could help scientists and fishery managers.

“Just kind of share both what’s known, what’s not known and then hopefully get this sense of what are the things that we can do together to help either conserve the things that we have, or maybe bring back some of the things that we would like to have,” she said.

Holderied said there are signs that small comebacks for some species are possible. Tanner crab populations have increased in recent years, giving birth to a small, recreational fishery for that species. And she said people want to know whether other species, like shrimp or Dungeness crab, could also return to the area.

Those like Bechtol believe the community meetings will be an opportunity to learn from the past. He said it will be interesting in hindsight to see what people would have done differently.

As for DeVaney, he said he did his best to prevent the decline of crab by advocating for smaller quotas and for shutting down a fishery earlier.

“I’m not saying fishermen are right, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We’re bullheaded. We don’t like changes. But even a lot of us realized that there had to have been a change made.”

He said he’d love to fish again for crab, but he isn’t holding his breath for shellfish populations to grow enough to become commercially viable once again.

If you’re interested in a participating in a conversation about the decline of shellfish, you can email Jill Burnham at JillBurnham@gmail.com.

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