Alaska’s snow crab harvest slashed by nearly 90% after population collapse in warming Bering Sea
The Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game has set the 2022 snow crab harvest at the lowest level in more than 40 years, a move to protect populations that appear to have collapsed over a period of higher temperatures in the Bering Sea.
Snow crab is a mainstay of Alaska’s crabeater fleet, many of which are based in Washington, and the 2021-2022 catch limit of just 5.6 million pounds, announced on Friday, is down 88% compared to the previous season.
The 2021 fall harvest of Bristol Bay red king crab, another major source of income for this fleet, has been canceled for this year due to insufficient numbers of females. The combined impacts of the snow crab closure and reductions are a big financial blow to crab fishermen who, in recent years, have brought in over $ 200 million from the two harvests.
At a North Pacific Fisheries Management Board meeting this week, crabbers called for additional restrictions on other harvests.
“I implore you to do whatever is necessary to keep the crab fishery sustainable,” Jenny Gore Dwyer, whose family owns three North Pacific crab fishing boats, said in testimony Wednesday before the council. âWe are first and foremost a company based on crabbing in the Bering Seaâ¦ But for us, it’s not just a business, it’s a way of life.
Scientists studying snow crab are scrambling to figure out what happened to them following the disastrous results of summer surveys which included a drop of more than 99% in immature females from those found three years earlier, as well as substantial declines in mature males and females.
Changes in the Bering Sea include dramatic declines in winter ice cover in 2018 and 2019, resulting in a reduction in the size of a cold bottom pool, favored by young crabs.
Some of the causes of the population decline likely include increased predation of young snow crab by cod that typically stay out of the cold pool as well as general stress caused by the higher temperatures, according to federal scientists and the State of Alaska who spoke at the virtual conference. board meeting. The researchers also followed an increase in the disease.
As the seabed warmed, snow crab also appears to have moved much further northwest and into deeper water than in the past. But the scientists, testifying before the council, said the evidence points to a sharp decline in the population – not just a migration out of the survey area.
âWe really thinkâ¦ some sort of mortality event has happened,â said Katie Palof, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game who advises the North Pacific Council on crab.
Formed by a landmark 1976 federal law that extended U.S. control over the 200-mile fishing zone off the nation’s coast, the council – made up of officials from state, industry, and government federal – developing harvest plans in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
In a vote on Wednesday, the council approved a maximum allowable snow crab harvest of Â£ 12.4 million for 2021-2022.
The state of Alaska, which sets the final quota, opted for a significantly lower number of 5.4 million pounds. Also on Friday, the state set a quota of 2.35 million pounds for Bering Sea bairdi crab, down 53% from the previous season.
Crab and fish crops in the Bering Sea collectively rank as the most valuable fisheries in North America, and the Federal Council, when it resumes meetings next week, is expected to consider additional restrictions on some other crops due to the low number of snow and king crab.
Bycatch and trawlers
The incidental or bycatch of crabs by other fleets has come under scrutiny, although biologists at the council meeting did not find this to be a major contributor to the crab decline.
The largest red king crab bycatch comes from crews fishing the fish with baited steel traps set along the seabed. A significant portion of these fishermen are also crabbers.
Since 2008, estimates based on the observers who are on board some of these vessels indicate that bycatch from the trap fishery has varied from as little as 804 king crabs in 2008 to 243,469 in 2018 and 235,607 up to now in 2021.
Trap fishermen must discard all those king red crabs, but biologists estimate only half survive.
Jamie Goen, Executive Director of the Bering Sea in Alaska crabs association, said bycatch is a concern, but trap fishermen have tested promising new gear that could reduce bycatch.
Crabbers are also looking for more restrictions on bottom trawl fleets which, while targeting fish, also catch king crab. Biologists who help assess stocks estimate that 80% of these crabs die when they are released as needed.
Over the past 13 years, king crab bycatch in bottom trawls has ranged from a high of 85,541 in 2008 to a low of 12,725 in 2018.
This fleet has observers on board all vessels and has a strict cap on the number of king crabs they can catch. This year the cap has been set at 97,000 and bycatch so far has been less than 15,500 crabs.
Next year, that cap will be lowered to 32,000, according to Mary Furnuness, a fisheries officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, involved in crop management.
Under current regulations, a bottom trawl-prohibited Bering Sea king crab conservation area will be extended to the south by 2022.
The crabbers are pushing for the council to expand further north to an area that can now be used by more king crabs.
“What we are proposing with an emergency closed area and voluntary actions requested from all sectors of the fishery should help crab stocks rebound and hopefully allow us to have a [king crab] fishing next year, âGoen said.
This decision is being challenged by Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, a Seattle-based organization that represents the bulk of the Washington-based bottom trawl fleet.
âThe crab is moving in unprecedented ways and new areas of closure would be an uninformed guess with a high potential for unintended impacts,â said Woodley.
Woodley said the closure could move bottom trawlers to other areas used by king crab.
The North Pacific Council is also urged to do more to protect the accidental harvest of salmon by trawlers in the Bering Sea. This appeal follows the disastrous returns of Chinook and Chum Salmon to the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers which have severely affected the Alaskan natives in the region who depend on these fish for their livelihoods.
The cause of the decline in these salmon runs is not well understood. Warming trends in the Bering Sea and freshwater are one factor the researchers are exploring.
Further south, returns of sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay reached record levels in 2021.
âFor the first time in our history, we were unable to harvest salmon. We couldn’t throw our nets in the river, âsaid Serena Fitka, executive director of the Yukon Drainage Fisheries Association, which represents 42 rural communities, in a statement Wednesday to the council. âOur fishing traditions are fading. Is this the beginning of the end for Yukon River salmonâ¦ We are in crisis.