Southeast Alaska’s summer Dungeness crab fishery worth $10M less than last year

Dungeness crab
Dungeness crab (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Southeast Alaska’s summer season for Dungeness crab was worth about $10 million less than last year. The shortfall was due to a combination of a much lower harvest and a smaller price per pound.

State managers closed Southeast’s Dungeness summer fishery — which opened June 15 — two weeks early by emergency order because of low harvest numbers.  It’s been five years since the last time that’s happened. This summer season harvest was just under 1.3 million pounds, nearly two million pounds less than last year.

Along with the lower harvest, was a corresponding drop in value. This year the fishery was worth $3.77 million. Last year it was $13.03 million.

Biologist Joe Stratman manages the fishery for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He says there are a number of factors that could lead to a fluctuating harvest. Fishermen this summer noted colder water temperatures at the start of the season, and tides of over 20 feet. These details matter because managers set the season length according to the first week’s harvest. 

Stratman says it could be those factors or just fewer legal-sized crab available.

“It’s also very possible that it was just a smaller cohort of crab recruiting into the fishery this year than we’ve seen in in recent seasons,” he said.

This year’s price was $2.96 per pound. That’s about average for Dungeness crab over the last decade. But it’s much lower than last year’s $4.21 a pound, the highest price ever paid. On top of that, there was a much higher harvest last year at 3.09 million.

Most Southeast Dungeness fishermen also participate in the fall season, which opened October 1.

Closing the summer season early usually means that the fall season will also be cut short. But there is an exception – and it happened this summer – and that’s a lot of soft-shell crab. As crab molt and replace their shells for larger ones, they contain less meat and bring less money.

If there are a lot of soft-shell crab in a shortened summer season, then the fall can go the full two-month length. This year, dock-side sampling indicated 28 percent soft-shell crab, which is enough to allow a full fall season. 

Managers try to plan crab fisheries around molting but it’s a tricky business with weather, temperatures, and tides. What did seem to be consistent this summer was the overall slow fishing.

“I would say probably from most of the people I heard from, you know, they weren’t seeing much of anything in the pots,” Stratman said. “And a lot of people thought, ‘Well, you know, we’re starting on really big tides, we’re starting on cold water, things are gonna get better.’ But it sounded like in a lot of the region, things didn’t get better, they stayed relatively the same.”

189 permit holders fished Southeast’s summer Dungeness fishery. The area that saw the most harvest was near Petersburg and Wrangell — in District 8, which saw 295,000 pounds harvested. That was followed by Stephens Passage near Juneau with 215,000 pounds harvested. The Frederick Sound area — District 10 — harvested 175,000 pounds.

Stratman says some areas were notably low.

“Some fishermen, particularly in the northern part of the region, didn’t see much of anything this season,” he said.

The fall Dungeness crab fishery will run through November in most of Southeast. A few areas stay open through February.

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