Crabbing season hasn’t even started yet, and it’s already looking to be a disaster.
Last week, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game announced that the 2021-2022 red king crab season has been canceled. And on top of that, the snow crab population has plummeted.
The cause of the crab population crashes is unclear, but the impact will be devastating.
“The story is already changing and getting much worse than we expected,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.
The red king crab population has been dropping for around a decade, according to Department of Fish & Game Area Biologist Miranda Westphal. Although she isn’t sure why, Westphal doesn’t believe it’s because of overfishing; the fishery has remained within federal regulations and there has not been a serious problem with bycatch, she said.
“It’s hard to say what’s a significant problem and what is not,” Westphal said. “We obviously aren’t on the ocean floor, so we can’t observe it.”
What is clear is that if the population gets any lower, the red king crab population will drop below the necessary level needed to sustain itself, according to Westphal.
Although this isn’t a surprise to people who have been following the market, it’s still a blow to the industry. There are about 400 crabbers and 70 vessels that fish for red kings in Bristol Bay and other parts of Alaska, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Around a dozen of them are based out of Kodiak, said Gabriel Prout, who has been a local crabber for five years.
“It’s gonna be really economically devastating,” Prout said. “Just for the resource as a whole as well as what it does to market share and market perceptions.”
For Prout, crabbing is a family business. His father, Phil has been a crabber for more than 40 years. Gabriel owns and operates the F/V Silver Spray with his brothers, Ashlan and Sterling. Although they’ll still go out this season, Prout and his brothers are considering cutting back on their crew and skipping their biennial shipyard repair work to save money.
The damage is exacerbated by the unexpected collapse of the snow crab population, Prout said. This year, snow crab yields are expected to be 44% of what they were in 2019, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. On top of this, mature male and female snow crab populations have decreased by 50% and 70%, respectively, NMFS found.
Once again, it’s unclear why the snow crab population has dropped so low. What makes the situation even stranger is that, unlike red king crab, snow crabs were at an unprecedented high a few years ago, and things looked like they were only getting better, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. The ABSC is describing this year as “the largest recruitment failure [they’ve] seen.”
Many locals will remember how quickly the presence of king crab in Kodiak peaked and then fell to nothing. Our best season was 1966, and by the early 1980s king crab fishing in Kodiak waters had been prohibited.
The National Marine Fisheries Service does trawling surveys to estimate crab and groundfish populations, and they use that data to calculate the total allowable catches for the upcoming season. They did not do a survey last year because of the pandemic, but this year they did 375 trawls in the Bering Sea.
The Department of Fish & Game is looking at new methods to track crabs. They are partnering with other entities, including the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to develop a satellite system for tracking crabs, according to Westphal.
Many fishermen may welcome these efforts.
There has been discontent with the current system of estimating crab and groundfish populations, according to Prout. He believes that there should be more trawls to get better estimates of these populations, or that the National Marine Fisheries Service should consider integrating pot catching into their methods.
Although the red king crab season is canceled and snow crab looks like it will be a bust, not everything is expected to be a total shambles. Tanner crab stock is down, but only slightly, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The number of mature female tanner crabs has increased, even though both the number and average weight of mature males has declined, the NMFS found.
“If there’s a tiny silver lining, it’s that we’re going to fall back on [tanner crab],” Prout said.
Even though his business is suffering, Prout is not against the decision to cancel the red king crab season.
“[In Alaska] we pride ourselves for being harvesters of sustainable resources,” Prout said. “As hard as it is to swallow, the closure of the red king season is sustainability in action.”
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council intends to make a decision later today (Monday) about how to proceed with the snow crab season, according to Diana Stram, a senior scientist with the NPFMC. They will meet later in the week to discuss how to address the red king crab population moving forward, Stram said.