With prices low, many fishermen are skipping Southeast’s Dungeness crab season

crab pots
Crab pots loaded onto the crabbing boat Hi Nikki at Petersburg’s South Harbor. (Hannah Flor/KFSK)

The Southeast Alaska Dungeness crab fishery opened on June 15. But roughly a quarter of the fleet in Petersburg is skipping the season. That’s partly because many of them are expecting low prices.

Two days before crabbing started, Petersburg fisherman Paul Menish was in the cabin of his boat, the Hi Nikki, speculating on crab prices.

“Sounds like prices aren’t going to be as low as we were quoted three weeks ago,” said Menish. “Now, it’s just rumors, but that the prices will be for Dungeness, will be in north at two dollars. Which isn’t a good price but better than three weeks ago.”

It turns out Menish was right.

When he sold his first load to OBI Seafoods in Petersburg, he said he got $2.10 a pound. That’s 50 cents lower than the starting price last summer.

Kevin Timm is the fleet manager at OBI Seafoods in Petersburg. He said the problem is that there’s still a lot of Dungeness crab left over from last year. He said it’s expensive and customers just aren’t buying it.

“There’s not a huge demand for it. It’s all about demand. And with the economy and recession, people aren’t buying crab,” said Timm.

Greg Smith is the communication director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. He said that while the institute doesn’t track prices, he’s noticed the same thing.

“We believe the impacts of inflation are moving people away from that species, from that category — and as a result, is hurting demand,” said Smith.

The organization doesn’t have any specific information on last year’s leftover dungy inventory. But they do know that snow crab inventory is higher than usual.

“The fisheries, they will kind of trend together,” said Smith. “So we can kind of make some assumptions that with snow crab having higher inventories, that Dungeness also probably has higher inventories as well.”

One way that crabbers make up for low prices is by catching a whole lot of crab. But last year, state managers closed Southeast’s Dungeness summer fishery two weeks early by emergency order because of low harvest numbers.

Joe Stratman is a regional shellfish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said that unlike many fisheries, last year’s Dungeness numbers are not any indication of potential stocks for the summer fishery. No one will know those numbers until the fishery is under way.

“We don’t survey Dungeness like we do in Southeast for red and blue king crab and tanner crab,” said Stratman. “So we don’t have any stock assessment independent of the fishery. So all of our information is fishery dependent.”

Fish and Game collects data on Dungeness stocks when processors buy crab. That means the department knows what to expect in terms of numbers at roughly the same time the fishermen do.

Menish — the Petersburg fisherman — feels good about this year’s potential harvest. He said the low crab price didn’t factor into his decision to participate this year. He’s heard that there were a lot of soft shells during last fall’s dungy opener. Soft shells mean the crabs aren’t mature enough to be caught and sold, but they’re a promising sign for future harvests.

“[I’m] hoping we can make up for it in volume this year,” said Menish. “But yeah, it has definitely taken the wind out of your sails, you know, when you hear those prices and your enthusiasm drops, but I was gonna do it anyways.”

Still, others just aren’t willing to set gear out. This summer, the Southeast Dungeness fishery opened with only 146 permit holders registered, which is about 50 less than last year.  That means roughly one quarter of the crabbing fleet decided to focus on other fisheries, or stay home and work other jobs.

Mike Weigand is one of them. He owns the Deli, a skiff with a winch for hauling crab pots. Weigand does have another job, which means he can be pretty relaxed about his fishing decisions.

“Even if it’s not the best year, I still have my other job I can kind of fall back on,” said Weigand. “So if it’s bad, then we’ll try and have as much fun as possible, I guess. We’ll just let the gear soak and play.”

One thing is for sure: fishermen are tight-lipped. Now that the crabbing has started, they won’t be sharing their dungy numbers.

Fish and Game will announce the length of the season by June 29. Their report will also have stock data from the first week of crabbing.

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