In the short term, Alaska crab fishers and the communities that depend on them will get a slight reprieve from the disastrous conditions they have endured for the past two years, with harvests for iconic red king crab to open on Sunday.
In the long term, the future for Bering Sea crab and the people who depend on it is clouded by environmental and economic upheaval.
The decision by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open harvests of Bristol Bay red king crab after an unprecedented two-year shutdown was a close call, a state biologist told industry members during a meeting on Thursday.
Red king crab are the largest of the commercially harvested crab species, and their meat is prized as a delicacy.
The department’s decision to allow a small harvest, announced on Oct. 6, was based on preseason surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
Biologist Mark Stichert said the surveys suggest that the crash that forced two years of closure in the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, the major Alaska source for that highly prized seafood species, has bottomed out.
“The decline has stopped. But whether or not we’re seeing a rebound in the biomass is hard to say,” Stichert said during the Thursday briefing. He is the Department of Fish and Game’s Kodiak-based groundfish and shellfish fisheries management coordinator.
A red king crab harvest returns, but at much lower levels than the past
The allowable harvest that opened on Sunday, as set by the state, is 2.15 million pounds, a little less than the 2.6 million pounds allocated for harvest in the 2020-21 season, the last time Bristol Bay red king crab was fished. It is considerably lower than in past years; in the 2016-17 season, for example, the total allowable harvest was nearly 8.47 million pounds. Those totals were dwarfed by the annual harvests four decades ago, which peaked in 1980 at nearly 130 million pounds.
The conclusion that crab numbers are now adequate to support a Bristol Bay area harvest hangs on a slender thread — the discovery of 382 adult female crabs in the preseason surveys, 121 more than were pulled up in last year’s surveys, Stichert said. The bulk of the adult females found this year were in a single spot, he said.
“One single 30-minute tow dictated whether you meet the threshold or do not meet the threshold,” he told crab harvesters.
The positive signs for high-value red king crab, as tenuous as they may be, are not yet emerging for Bering Sea snow crab. That marquee Alaska fishery, which in the 1990s supported harvests in the hundreds of millions of pounds, was closed last year for the first time ever, after stocks crashed by about 80%. It will remain closed for the coming year because the stock is continuing to decline, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced on Oct. 6.
Climate change looms, threatens future harvests
Scientists are questioning whether full recovery is possible in a warming world for these ailing crab populations that have supported some of the world’s most lucrative fisheries.
Snow crab appear to be particularly vulnerable to climate change, scientists say.
“They stand out because they are a true Arctic species,” said the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Gordon Kruse, a professor emeritus in the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
There are already signs that Alaska’s snow crab range is shifting north – as expected by NOAA Fisheries scientists – which means ocean currents carry the larvae even farther north, he said. But the growth appears to hit a barrier north of the Bering Strait, he said. The Chukchi Sea does have a population of snow crab, “but they’re stunted,” he said. The Chukchi and the Beaufort Sea to its east appear to be unable to support what might be commercial stocks, he said.
Stichert, in his presentation to industry members, described how climate change may be creating some “bottlenecks” for Bristol Bay red king crab in their early life stages.
The females lay their eggs in time for the spring algal bloom that emerges from the underside of the sea ice, he said in his briefing. But reduced ice affects the bloom of plankton on which the larvae depend for the two to three months they are floating around in the water, he said. If they survive that period, the larvae’s fate depends on where they land on the seafloor, he said.
“There are a lot of risks and a lot of opportunities to die for a larval king crab,” he said.
In briefings during the October meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, biologists described some of the risks to young red crab survival. They include ocean acidification, which inhibits shell growth, and a more robust population of sockeye salmon, which feed on crab larvae when they are at sea.
Another risk comes from the trawl nets used to catch pollock in the same areas used by crab.
The problem is not bycatch in the usual sense, or the unintended harvest of crab caught in nets used to harvest pollock, Kruse said. Those numbers are very low and “do not rise to the level of making a population effect on snow crab or other crab species,” he said.
Rather, the danger is from pollock trawl gear that touches the seafloor, which fishery managers and biologists said happens more frequently than previously believed. That contact can harm crab habitat or injure or kill the crabs themselves, which often are in the vulnerable shell-less molting phase at the same time trawlers are fishing for cod.
“We now know that this gear’s on the bottom a majority of the time,” Kenny Down, a North Pacific Fishery Management Council member, said on Oct. 10, the last day of the October meeting. He noted that the council banned bottom trawling for pollock more than two decades ago, in 2001. The objective of that ban “is currently not being met,” he said. “This gear is in the bottom, it’s in areas that we’ve designated as sensitive, and we’ve prohibited bottom trawling in those areas for a variety of reasons.”
The council is now preparing to consider additional protections for a 4,000-square-nautical mile section of the eastern Bering Sea that has since the mid-1990s been designated as the Bristol Bay Red King Crab Savings Area. Although the council in December rejected a request from crab harvesters for a complete closure of the area to trawling during the first half of the year, it is set to revisit the issue at upcoming meetings.
Another regulatory response to the crab crisis is expected to come in a mandatory review of the quota system that divvies up the Bering Sea crab harvests among fishers and processors. The system of assigned Bering Sea crab quotas, part of a process called “rationalization” that is taking hold in fisheries globally, began in 2005. Rationalization is intended to preserve the safety of fish stocks and people by eliminating the race to harvest that can happen in open-access fisheries. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires periodic reviews of quota systems; the crab review has now come due.
The Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries are the first rationalized harvests in the nation to suffer such massive collapses, industry representatives said repeatedly.
“One of the main goals of the program is to create economic stability, and we’re seeing anything but that right now,” Jamie Goen told the council. Goen is the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the industry group for harvesters.
There are some other crab harvests that are proceeding this year in Alaska’s Bering Sea, but they are relatively small. A harvest of Bering Sea bairdi tanner crab, a species related to snow crab, got the go-ahead from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, with a total allowable catch of about 2 million pounds: similar to that authorized a year ago. A relatively small harvest of the prized red king crab has been taking place farther to the north, in Norton Sound near the Bering Strait, with a little over 350,000 pounds caught over the summer. But harvests of rare blue king crab continue to be closed, as they have been for the past several years.
Alaska faces competition
While Alaska’s Bering Sea crab populations struggle, stocks and fisheries are flourishing elsewhere.
In eastern Canada, snow crab harvests are high and quotas have been increasing. There, Kruse said, the population has the advantage of an ocean current that sends cold water down from Greenland: the Labrador Current.
“That southern-flowing cold water is very, very favorable to the Arctic population snow crab,” he said. In contrast, the Bering Sea has warm water flowing north from the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait, he said.
In the Barents Sea on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, snow crab are recent arrivals, but they are thriving and supporting commercial harvests.
“The thinking is that it’s a natural extension of snow crab in the oceans in the northwest Atlantic, around Canada,” Kruse said. “They’re growing in an area that hasn’t had snow crab in the system, so as invaders, they’re doing quite well.”
Though Alaska is famous for its big crab, those other sources could take away market share, particularly as the Bering Sea enters its second consecutive year of snow crab shutdowns, Kruse said.
“If you turn off the spigot and have no crab to catch, that’s going to be replaced by something else, and probably snow crab from someplace else in the world,” he said.
John Sackton, a Massachusetts-based fishery analyst and consultant, gave a sobering assessment of the Alaska crab industry’s position in global markets.
The interrupted harvests make it difficult for buyers who previously bought and advertised the Alaska product, he said.
“It definitely changes the behavior of people who would normally be the consumers of Alaska crab,” he said. And once consumers have switched to other sources of crab, like Canada or Norway, they will not easily switch back to Alaska products. If and when Alaska stocks recover and harvests return to normal levels, it will take a long time to regain those markets, he said.
The allowable bairdi tanner crab harvest is a consolation, as bairdi is an excellent product that many chefs and knowledgeable consumers prefer to snow crab, he said. But there is a downside even to the bairdi harvest, he said. “The problem is bairdi has been that over the last 10 years or so, the harvests have been very erratic. Because it’s been erratic like that, it’s been very hard to know what might be available.”
Yet more concerning, Sackton said, is that the troubles that have plagued Alaska’s crab stocks have wider reach beyond those shellfish.
“I personally feel that there’s a severe threat with the warmer temperatures in the Bering Sea and fisheries becoming erratic. It’s not just crab,” he said. Other species are affected, too, notably salmon runs outside of Bristol Bay – resulting in bitter fights over salmon crashes along major rivers, allocation decision and at-sea bycatch, he said.
“All of that does make people, to be honest, lose faith in Alaska fisheries,” he said. “I think the Alaska brand is damaged, no question about it.”
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