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Commercial Crab Fisheries
The Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska together produce approximately one-third or more of total U.S. crab catches on average. Ten species of crabs are caught in Alaskan crab fisheries, and seven of these have commercial importance: red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus; blue king crab, P. platypus; golden king crab, Lithodes aequispinus; Tanner crab, Chionoecetes bairdi; snow crab, C. opilio; hair crab, Erimacrus isenbeckii; and Dungeness crab, Cancer magister. The three minor species, scarlet king crab, L. couesi; grooved Tanner crab, C. tanneri; and Triangle Tanner crab, C. angulatus, are landed mostly as incidental catch in other crab fisheries. Besides commercial fisheries, subsistence and sport fisheries occur in many areas, but their contributions to total harvest remain small.
The history of crab fisheries extends back to 1930, but substantial commercial efforts were not undertaken until the 1950s when the king crab fisheries were developed in the Bering Sea. The history of harvests for the various crab species shows a wide range of fluctuations (Alaska crab harvests, 1974-2004 graphic) and most of the stocks are currently in depressed conditions. A number of explanations for these conditions have been given: overharvest, decline in recruitment due to adverse climatic conditions, unintentional bycatch of broodstock in other fisheries, and others. Despite a variety of restrictions and regulations in the past two decades, most of the depressed stocks have failed to recover. Consequently, a number of precautionary management measures have been taken by the federal and state agencies to conserve these stocks.
Crab Stock Distribution
Red king crabs are distributed throughout the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska, with historical fishing centers in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, Petrel Bank, the Pribilof Islands, Kodiak Island, and northern Southeast Alaska (crab management activities map). In contrast, blue king crabs are found as discrete small populations around St. Matthew Island, the Pribilof Islands, St. Lawrence Island, Nunivak Island, and in isolated cold water areas in the Gulf of Alaska. The two king crab species are found in greater abundance at depths less than 180 m. Golden (brown) king crabs primarily inhabit waters along continental slopes of the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, and Gulf of Alaska at depths greater than 180 m. Fisheries in the Aleutian Islands have accounted for most of the golden king crab landings. Scarlet king crabs are a deepwater species living in waters deeper than 600m. They are caught primarily as bycatch in the grooved Tanner crab and golden king crab fisheries.
Hair crabs are mostly found near the Pribilof Islands. Tanner crabs are distributed in the eastern Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and the Gulf of Alaska with major concentrations restricted to less than 300 m. Snow crabs occur in the northern and central Bering Sea on the continental shelf with major concentrations restricted to less than 300 m. Grooved Tanner crabs and Triangle Tanner crabs are other deepwater species found at depths greater than 200m in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Dungeness crabs are found in estuaries and open ocean areas from Dixon Entrance to Unalaska Island. They occur from the intertidal zone to depths greater than 300 m. Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Alaska Peninsula, eastern Aleutian Islands, and Southeast Alaska are historical centers for Dungeness crab fisheries.
[Based on excerpts from the publication, Commercial Fisheries in Alaska, Woodby et al. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Special Publication 05-09, June 2005. Information or data on this web page may have been updated and may no longer match the original publication.]