The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been given the ultimate high profile assignment: The Case of the Crashed Bering Sea Snow Crab. They must both identify the crab’s killer, and bring the victim back from the dead, as specified by the Magnuson Stevens Act, the national law that governs all U.S. fisheries.
But, unfortunately, the perpetrator is outside their jurisdiction.
As the federal management body for fisheries in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, the Council has broad and sweeping powers to regulate their conduct. They determine if, when, and where fisheries occur. They set limits on the allowable catch, and the size of vessel allowed to fish. They decide what types of gear may be used, and how much of it. They choose who will be allowed access to a fishery, and who will be denied. And they are now required by law to use that authority to prevent overfishing of Eastern Bering Sea snow crab, and rebuild the fishery in the span of 10 years.
But their considerable influence does not extend to the drivers of climate change. This is relevant because, according to the environmental assessment of the Rebuilding Plan for Eastern Bering Sea Snow Crab Initial Review Analysis released on Nov. 10, “ The main driver in speed of rebuilding for this stock is not fishing mortality, rather it is likely related to recruitment and the conditions that allow for increased recruitment into the population, such as the Arctic Oscillation and physical indicators including, but not limited to, temperature, sea ice extent, resource availability, and predator-prey relationships.
Ecosystem conditions may improve, and improvements would result in reduced natural mortality and increased production and will be monitored during rebuilding through ecosystem indicators. The allowance, in the projections, for recruitment to eventually increase and contribute to stock growth assumes that existing ecosystem conditions or other constraints on production will not continue indefinitely.
However, if recruitment remains at low levels, the population may take substantially longer to show rebuilding progress and may never reach BMSY. This astonishing assessment basically amounts to “hopefully environmental conditions will improve and they will come back by themselves, but maybe not.”
And it is the reverse side of this assessment that is really relevant to Council action, or its lack. As the analysis states: “…fishing mortality is not the primary driver of the current snow crab population status…” Therefore, restrictions on human activities that directly result in crab mortality, whether directed fishing or bycatch, are considered effectively useless in the rebuilding of the stock.
The Council’s preliminary alternatives for the rebuilding plan are:
“Alternative 1: No Action,” which is impossible, since they are required by law to take action, and
“Alternative 2: Adopt a rebuilding plan and specify a target rebuilding time not to exceed TMAX, as recommended by the SSC. The stock will be considered ‘rebuilt’ once it reaches BMSY.”
“TMAX” is the time limit to rebuild the stock, which is 10 years, as specified in the MSA. “BMSY” is the historical level of stock abundance at which a sustainable harvest can be taken. But staff recognizes that both of those benchmarks could be unrealistic. The time it will take to rebuild the stock depends entirely on environmental conditions we can’t predict. And we don’t know if snow crab will ever return to historical levels of abundance.
The two options under Alternative Two are:
“Option 1: No directed fishing until the stock is rebuilt, allow bycatch removals only,” and
“Option 2: Allow bycatch removals and a directed snow crab fishery under the current State of Alaska harvest strategy.”
The analysis states: “Because fishing mortality is not the primary driver of the current snow crab population status, either option does not substantively change the projection of TMIN (The minimum projected rebuilding time), and under both options it is assumed that the stock would rebuild within 10 years.” In other words, the impacts of fishing mortality are such a small factor in the crab crash that they effectively don’t matter at all. It goes on to suggest that the Council should punt the decision on whether or not to open a directed fishery to state managers, which they did at the October meeting.
The state chose not to open the 2023 fishery. It is notable that there is no option that allows bycatch removals. Such a prohibition would essentially shut down many of the region’s trawl fisheries. But the Council did ask for analysis on three possible actions regarding the amount of snow crab allowed to be caught accidentally in other fisheries, or the Prohibited Species Cap: First, removal of the crab PSC floor, which provides a minimum amount of crab bycatch to trawl fisheries and second, to count all crab PSC against the cap, not just that in specific areas, and third, to put a limit on fixed-gear PSC.
But according to their analysis: “Non-target bycatch of snow crab in other crab and groundfish fisheries will not substantially affect rebuilding time, based on model projections… The median time for stock recovery was not differentiable from the no fishing scenario. To account for unobserved mortality, the rebuilding projections also simulated scenarios with 5x and 100x the level of observed bycatch.
Even in these projections, there was a minimal difference in median rebuilding time under each scenario. Therefore, analysts conclude that recovery of the EBS snow crab stock is likely not to be affected by current or predicted bycatch levels, based on average historical bycatch… As a result, no measures to modify EBS snow crab bycatch management in the groundfish fisheries are included in this rebuilding analysis.”
So, in the end, the rebuilding plan is really quite simple: “Hold your breath and cross your fingers.”
Terry Haines was a commercial fisherman in Kodiak for more than 30 years. He now produces the Alaska Fisheries Report for KMXT and is a member of the Kodiak City Council. He can be reached at email@example.com