KODIAK — Crab catches dominate Alaska’s fish news in early October as boats gear up for mid-month openers in the Bering Sea.
As expected, crabbers will see increased catches for snow crab after the annual survey showed a 60 percent boost in market sized males and nearly the same for females (only male crabs can be retained for sale).
Managers announced this week a catch of 27.5 million pounds of snow crab, up 47 percent from last season. Even better, biologists documented one of the largest numbers of small snow crab poised to enter the fishery they’ve ever seen.
Also as expected, the news is bad for bairdi Tanners, the larger cousins of snow crab. A take of just 2.4 million pounds, down 2 percent, will be allowed from the western fishing district of the Bering Sea, with the eastern district closed for the season.
Crabbers breathed a sigh of relief to learn there will be a red king crab fishery at Bristol Bay with a catch of 4.3 million pounds, a 36 percent drop. Those stocks have been on a downward spiral for several years and talk on the docks was that there would likely not be a fishery this year.
“It helps sustain king crab markets that might be lost if the season were closed,” reacted Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange which represents the majority of Bering Sea crabbers.
There, again, will be no king crab openers at the Pribilofs and St. Matthew Island due to low stock numbers. Similarly, a king crab fishery was canceled at Southeast Alaska where a small 120,000 pound red king crab fishery occurred last fall for the first time in six years.
Looking good for Gulf crab
The official word won’t be out until November, but signs are pointing to another Kodiak Tanner crab opener in January 2019. Last winter saw the first season after a four year closure, with a 400,000 pound harvest.
It looks positive because we had a big group of crab last year that were just sub-legal, and we thought we might get two years of fishing on that group, said Nat Nichols, area shellfish manager at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Kodiak.
A big pulse of crab in 2013 was the largest biologists had ever seen since trawl surveys began, Nichols said.
“At that time, we estimated 200 million crab in the water. They were one to two year olds, the size of a nickel,” he said. “They don’t survive well because everything likes to eat a small Tanner crab, and about 90 percent drop out of the population before they reach legal size. But even 10 percent still turns into a lot of crab.”
Nichols said Tanner numbers also are looking up at Chignik and the South Peninsula, but those regions are likely to remain closed.
Biologists talk about “episodic recruitment” of Tanner crab, Nichols said, when massive spikes arrive all at once, roughly on a five to seven year timeline. The largest one ever may be in the lineup.
“This year we saw the next recruitment pulse and it’s possibly 50 percent bigger than 2013,” he said. “But we’re looking way down the road to 2023.”
“We try not to get too excited because we’ve seen these drop off between the first year we see them and five years later when they become legal. But it’s good to see we’re still producing big cohorts of crab,” Nichols added. We’re sort of along for the ride, is how we put.”
The abundance of tiny Tanners could be a benefiting from the crash of the cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, he said.
“If you’ve got 80 percent fewer mouths to feed, I don’t think it can hurt.”
Tanners too at PWS
Crabbers at Prince William Sound could also get to drop pots for Tanners again in March.
“We’re getting all our information together so we can see where we’re at,” said Jan Rumble, area manager for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet shellfish and groundfish at ADF&G in Homer.
A one month fishery in March 2018 was the first Tanner crab opener in PWS since 1988. It was allowed under a Commissioner’s Permit that is issued in special circumstances and was limited to two regions.
It was a sort of fact finding mission, Rumble said, that was prompted by increasing numbers of crab coming up in subsistence pots and a lack of survey data. Fifteen permit holders participated in the fishery and pulled up 82,000 pounds of crab.
Rumble said based on last year’s harvest, managers are “pretty confident” there will be another special permit fishery next March.
“Hopefully, processors will come into Cordova and set up for that fishery again. We also had buyers in Whittier and Seward and they will appreciate the opportunity to buy Tanner crab again,” Rumble said.
Pacific Marine Expo is one of the industry’s oldest (52 years) and most popular trade shows and organizers were scrambling a few months ago when its traditional November dates were spiked by a football game at Seattle’s CenturyLink center where the event is held.
That pushed Expo into Thanksgiving week amid worries that it would cut into the show’s draw. The Nov. 18-20 date change hasn’t worked for some exhibitors, said Expo director Denielle Christensen, but for others, it’s provided more motivation to come to the show.
“Some folks are already traveling at Thanksgiving time, so this is actually a good schedule for them. No down time – you can go right from Expo to family and your turkey dinner,” Christensen said, adding that early registrations are ahead of last year.
Dominating the Expo floor again is an even bigger Alaska Hall which will house 52 Alaska companies and the show’s main stage. Christensen said over one-third of the visitors at Expo in 2018 said they were “specifically looking for products from Alaska.”
A new focus this year is a Young Fishermen’s Track for those just starting out.
“We realized that was a group that was being overlooked. We know they need help and we hope we can be a bigger part of that for them,” Christensen said.
Also in the Expo line up: a public hearing on the Pebble Mine.
“Pebble Mine comes up every year and it is such an important topic to have in our educational program,” she said.
Laine Welch has been writing the Fish Factor column since 1991. It appears weekly in 20 papers and websites in Alaska and nationally.