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Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2005

Alaska’s Crab Fishery:
Big Money Days are Gone

By Amy Carroll
caption follows
Measuring a Tanner crab. © ADF&G.

Crab fishing in Alaska’s Bering Sea evokes immediate, visceral images – freezing winds! Big money! 700-pound crab pots! Ice-crusted boats! Crushed limbs!

While the myth lives on, the days of earning a year’s wages in a few days are on the wane. It’s still cold, the crab pots are still heavy, but Alaska’s commercial crab fishery has been depressed for years and many of the fisheries are currently in decline or closed. The steady stock depletion has been variously blamed on overharvest, adverse climate conditions, or unintentional bycatch of broodstock in other fisheries. Subsistence and sport fisheries’ take of the total crab harvest is very small.

Current crab management measures include minimum size limits, male-only fishery, specific fishing seasons, reduced incidental mortality through monitoring maximum allowable crab bycatch thresholds, pot limits, permits, onboard observers, registration areas, reporting requirements, vessel tank inspections, and gear specifications. What is new this 2005 season is a rationalization plan, which further added regulations and complexities.

No matter how you define it, crab rationalization is a contentious issue. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPMFC) has been discussing the issue for the last eight years; their concern was too many boats fishing, derby-style, for too few crab. Crab rationalization has changed a free-for-all into an individual fishing quota (IFQ) fishery. Previously, the fleet would catch the guideline harvest level in just a few days, but now, with IFQs, boats can fish over a longer period to catch their quota.

With rationalization, the seasonal parameters of the fisheries remain unchanged. Three newly-rationalized Bering Sea fisheries opened Oct. 15 of this year: red king crab, Tanner crab, and snow crab. Two of these fisheries -- Tanner crab and snow crab – are opening as part of a North Pacific Fishery Management Council rebuilding plan. The red king crab season closes Jan. 15, Tanner fishery closes March 31, and the snow crab season closes May 15 in the eastern subdistrict and May 31 in the western subdistrict.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries distributed the IFQs to vessel owners based on who caught the most crab is past years. Because each vessel owner is assigned a quota, an IFQ fishery also makes it more difficult to close the fishery early if returns are lower than expected.

Critics of rationalization, mostly small-time crab fishermen, say it privatizes a public resource; proponents call it ending a mad, dangerous race for scarce resources. No matter how you look at it, boat owners will save money, and crew members will will have fewer job opportunities. If a boat owner owns several boats, he can use just one to fish over a longer period with the IFQs given to him for all his boats. If an owner just owns one boat he can join a cooperative which can send out one boat to catch the shares of all owners.

One of the hoped-for benefits of rationalization is reduced bycatch. While the rationalized fishery does not require longer soak time, with an IFQ fishery the thinking is that fishermen will leave the pots on the bottom longer, allowing undersized crabs more time to escape. In the frenzied, free-for-all fishery, undersized and female crabs that are brought up as bycatch and thrown back often die anyway.

Both Bering Sea Tanner and snow crab stocks were declared overfished in 1999. The Tanner fishery has been closed since 1996. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, National Marine Fisheries Service, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game drafted a rebuilding plan, which was approved in 2000.

This season’s Bering Sea red king crab catch is expected to be 18.3 million pounds, up from 15.2 million pounds last year. The harvest this year is expected to be the largest since 1990. The first recorded red king crab harvest was in 1966 at just under one million pounds. Numbers rose steadily, peaking at 130 million pounds in 1980, and then declined sharply from there.

The rationalized Tanner and snow crab fisheries opening this year have had a tumultuous history. Tanner crab was first reported harvested in the Bering Sea as incidental catch in the 1968 red king crab fishery. During the 1977-1978 season the harvest peaked at 66.6 million pounds. The following fall, the National Marine Fishery Service accurately predicted a steep decline starting with the 1978-1979 season. By 1984, the harvest had fallen to 1.2 million. In 1986 and 1987, the fishery was closed.

In the early 1990s, pot limits were lowered and the fishery boundaries were adjusted, but based on a poor 1996 harvest, the fishery was closed again in 1997.

The first commercial snow crab harvest was just over 32 million pounds in the late 1970s. Increases were steady and strong through the early 1990s, peaking in 1991 at 328.6 million pounds. Harvests declined over the next few years to 65.7 million pounds in 1996, and on down to 22.2 million pounds in 2004.

Tanner crab populations have rebounded somewhat this year. For the upcoming 2005-2006 season the total allowable catch is 1.5 million pounds for the IFQ fishery and 160,000 pounds as a guaranteed quota for the community residents. This year, the Bering Sea snow crab harvest is set at just over 37 million pounds, a 61% increase over the 23 million pounds taken last season, with 3.7 million pounds reserved for the Community Development Quota. This quota has been raised from 7.5 to 10 percent for these two fisheries.

This guaranteed quota idea, taken from Greenland, New Zealand, and Iceland, provides the Bering Sea residents a guaranteed share of the fishery resources that exist right at their doorstep. It allocates between 7.5 and 10 percent of the total allowable catch of halibut, sablefish, Atka mackerel, Pacific cod, and crab to these small communities. This program was introduced to the NPFMC in 1992, and added to the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act in 1996, which was then renamed the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act governs all fishery management activities in the U.S. waters within the 200 nautical mile limit, or Exclusive Economic Zone.

There are seven crab species of commercial importance in Alaska:
• red king crab (Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, Petrel Bank, Pribilof Islands, Kodiak Island, the Gulf of Alaska, and northern Southeast Alaska),
• blue king crab (St. Matthew Island, Pribilof Islands, St. Lawrence Island, Nunivak Island, Gulf of Alaska, and Southeast Alaska),
• golden king crab (Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and Southeast Alaska),
• Tanner crab (Eastern Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and Southeast Alaska),
• snow crab (Northern and central Bering Sea),
• hair crab (Pribilof Islands) and
• Dungeness crab (Dixon entrance to Unalaska Island, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Alaska Peninsula, eastern Aleutian Islands, and Southeast Alaska).

Three additional species, not considered commercially important, are commonly caught as bycatch: scarlet king crab, grooved Tanner crab, and Triangle Tanner crab.

Amy Carroll is a publication specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Commercial Fisheries.

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