With fishing slowed by pandemic, Bering Sea crabbers push for extended season

A deck of a  boat pulling up crab pots
Crew from the Silver Spray empty snow crab pots while fishing in the Bering Sea. (Bill Prout/F/V Silver Spray)

A group of Bering Sea crabbers say the pandemic has slowed their fishing season. They want more time to catch their quota before the state closes this year’s fishery, set to end next week.

But the Alaska Department of Fish & Game denied the extension request, citing low population numbers and an upcoming mating season.

For the few boats catching bairdi crab this year, there could be a lot at stake if they don’t have time to catch their full quota.

“I’m thinking they don’t quite understand what we’re going through out here,” said Oystein Lone, captain of the 98-foot crab boat Pacific Sounder, based out of Dutch Harbor.

Until recently, Lone has been fishing in the Bering Sea for snow crab, also known as opilio. But he and his five-person crew have recently switched to fishing for a different type of crab: bairdi, or tanner crab.

Both crab seasons open in October. But Lone made the change because bairdi season is nearly over — even though, as of Wednesday, only 46% of the total quota had been caught.

“The closure is looming on us here,” he said. “So my rationale was to try to get Fish & Game to give us a month extension, to help us out here and keep us from switching back and forth in the middle of the season.”

The department quickly denied formal requests by Lone and two other boats to extend the season, but Lone said he hasn’t given up. He’s still pushing for an extension to catch his full quota before switching back to snow crab.

Alternating between the fisheries has added stress, safety risks, extra fuel burn and gear work on top of an already long and difficult season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Lone said.

“We have changed the way we do business,” Lone said. “And I think the whole industry has changed to adapt to this. But saying that, things are taking a lot longer to get done out here. And we’re going to be pushing right up against the closure to get our business done.”

Because of bad weather, a fuel shortage in the Bering Sea community of St. Paul that’s required traveling hundreds of extra miles to fill up, and pandemic-related plant closures and delays, Lone is left with a lot of bairdi quota he likely won’t be able to catch.

“Traditionally, right now, a lot of vessels would be heading to port and tying up and be done for the season,” he said. “But most of us are still fishing here.”

According to Lone, this year’s pandemic-related complications will add as much as a month and a half to his fishing season.

Bill Prout, who owns and operates the 116-foot crab boat Silver Spray out of Kodiak, is in a similar situation. He and his six-man crew, including three of his sons, are wrapping up fishing for snow crab before making a last-ditch effort to catch some of their bairdi quota.

“We’re probably only going to end up getting maybe four or five days of actual fishing time for the bairdi,” Prout said.

Extra wait time to deliver crab and receive parts and supplies, as well as crew changes, have roughly tripled the time it took to catch his crab this season, he said.

What makes the looming closure especially stressful for some fishermen is knowing they have payments to make on quota they either own or lease. They might not have the money if the quota isn’t caught, Prout said.

“I have a couple of people that I’ve leased from for a long time who will be fairly understanding of the situation,” Prout said. “But they still might say, ‘Well, an agreement’s an agreement,’ and we could have to pay for crab that we didn’t even catch.”

While the crabbers are still pushing Fish & Game for an extension, it doesn’t look like they’ll get one.

After talking to industry groups and boat captains, the agency decided not to extend the season for several reasons, said Miranda Westphal, a fisheries biologist with the local fish and game office in Unalaska.

The primary one is biological.

Some crab species mate all year as they come across each other on the seafloor. But bairdi gather together to molt and mate only during early spring.

“This is the time of year that’s really critical for the future of the stock,” Westphal said. “It would have to be a pretty large emergency for us to justify fishing into that season.”

There also haven’t been many harvest-size bairdi crab in recent years. While they were unable to survey the size of the bairdi population last year because of the pandemic, Westphal said in 2019, the agency saw some of its lowest numbers in nearly 15 years.

Because abundance is low and fishing is slow, Westphal said, just six crab boats are currently fishing for bairdi in the western Bering Sea. The rest of the fleet is focused on catching snow crab further north.

“Boats are struggling, people are struggling due to COVID, and also abundance levels are low in the fishery,” she said. “It’s this really unfortunate coinciding of events right now. And we feel for our fishermen — we wish things could be better. But we’re very cautious about not sacrificing the future fisheries for current times.”

Despite Fish & Game’s rejection, Pacific Sounder captain Lone said with just six days left in the season, he’s still pushing.

“I’m going to fight to the last hour of the season to try to get an extension,” he said. “I know they said no. But no means just another way to get a yes out of them for me. So, we just have to keep fighting here and hope for the best.”

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