BSAI Crab Issues Top Agenda for NPFMC’s October Meeting

Crab sections of wild cooked Dungeness crab were selling for $9.99 a pound at Costco stores in Anchorage in the last days of August. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

Sales were hot as autumn approached for fresh and frozen shellfish at Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, with golden king crab legs and claws going for a teaser rate of $55.99, with Dungeness and Bairdi all ready to ship.

“We are trying to get them to get a whole king salmon to go with it,” said fishmonger Stewart Wolfe, also the shipping manager at the world-famous market.

Holidays—from Father’s Day and July 4th to Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s—attract the biggest demand for these succulent shellfish, whose abundance is dwindling with climate change and other issues impacting the world’s oceans.

Overall, demand in the fall of 2023 was about the same as for the same months a year earlier, Wolfe said. Shellfish orders were averaging about five pounds.

Pike Place fishmongers still were selling frozen Dungeness crab at $39.99 while waiting for another Dungeness fishery to open, plus a flat rate to ship the order overnight with UPS anywhere in the U.S. Pike Place Fish Market, which only ships to domestic locations, also had Bairdi snow crab for sale at $29.99 a pound.

At 10th & M Seafoods in Anchorage, large legs of golden king crab were $37.95, while the Dungeness were $12.95 apiece for whole crab and $16.95 for Dungeness legs and claws, plus an average of $100 for overnight shipping, manager Tino Marquis said. Sales were going well, and inventory was abundant, he remarked.

North Pacific Fisheries

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) was bracing for its Oct. 5-10 fall meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Anchorage, with shellfish issues a top priority on the agenda. The council was set to review the stock assessment and fishery evaluation (SAFE) report, the acceptable biological catch/overfishing limit for Bristol Bay red king crab, Tanner crab, snow crab and Pribilof Island crab.

The council also was slated to review the latest work plan for Bering Sea/Aleutian Island crab.

“Long time-series of environmental data, including data from subsurface mooring arrays, are critical to understanding potential impacts on Arctic sea-ice coverage and marine ecosystems,” NPFMC Executive Director Dave Witherell said.

Diane Stram, a senior scientist with the NPFMC, said the most recent stock assessments for crab were not yet available, but when completed would be available on the Crab Plan Team agenda for the council meeting.

Stock status and stock recovery are among the issues to be discussed at the next Crab Plan Team meeting, she said.

Lucrative commercial fisheries for Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab are currently canceled due to the abundance of both species being below the threshold allowing for harvest.

In October 2022, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) cancelled the 2022-2023 harvest of Bering Sea snow crab and also announced a second consecutive closure year for Bristol Bay red king crab.

Decreased quotas and closed crab fisheries are having a dire economic impact on veteran crab harvesters who have for years relied on the crab for a lucrative income, as well as processors and all those in related seafood industry occupations, from manufacture of vessel parts to transporting the crab to buyers all over the world.

Coastal Alaska communities have seen the taxes collected from shoreside processors plummet.  

Heather McCarty of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association told journalist Anthony S. Lewis for a Yale Environment 360 online magazine report on the impact of warming ocean waters, that tax revenues for the city of St. Paul, Alaska went from about $2.5 million two years ago to about $200,000 this year.

“It was all snow crab all the time,” she said.  “[Now] they have about a year’s worth of reserves that will allow them to survive with the municipal services relatively intact, but, after that, it’s anybody’s guess how they’ll actually pay for really basic things.”

The situation was different at Kodiak, where for the past few years the Dungeness crab harvest has been robust. For the 2023 season, the preliminary harvest report showed a catch of 846,000 pounds of Dungeness, which is probably closer to historical averages, said Cassandra Whiteside, assistant area manager for shellfish and groundfish fisheries for the state for Kodiak, the South Alaska Peninsula and Chignik. The Dungeness harvest is sold to Trident Seafoods, OBI Seafoods, Pacific Seafoods and Alaska Pacific Seafoods, which have processing facilities in Kodiak. 

Kodiak also had a big season for Bairdi crab, for which the guideline harvest level was 5.8 million pounds. But for the Kodiak area the harvest was close to 5.9 million pounds, plus additional harvest for the Alaska Peninsula and Chignik districts, she said.

Those fisheries, she added, had pretty good weather this year and were closed within seven to 14 days, although sometimes those fisheries can last through March.

While a heat wave that was considered a factor in low abundance of several crab species is over, its effects are lingering in ocean waters.

Bering Sea crab fishermen meanwhile have been trying to diversify as much as possible, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) Executive Director Jamie Goen.

“We have developed a resilient fishery action plan, which is posted on the ABSC website,” Goen said. “There needs to be opportunity to diversify, to move into other fisheries and to increase flexibility at every level of the system.” 

Goen also stated there needs to be more protections for harvesters when stocks collapse, and that financial relief needs to arrive faster.

“We need to use the science we have while seeking more information,” she said. “It’s never going to be enough, but we need to start taking steps forward with the information we have.”

“Part of the problem is warmer water and longer periods of ocean acidification, and we don’t have much control over that, but we do have control overfishing and fish habitat,” she said.

Other fisheries also are having an impact on crab, including groundfish and pelagic trawl nets and pot cod gear that affect crab, she said.

“We were looking at how to reduce the amount of crab caught in pot cod fisheries by changing the design of the entrance tunnels of that gear, so crab don’t want to come in, but cod do,” Goen explained. “That was collaborative research that involved all the stakeholders, NOAA Fisheries, the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation, cod, crab and halibut fishermen and gear manufacturers.”

The group gave its final report on that research to the NPFMC in February.

Conservation & Stabilization

Goen has called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and ADF&G to make a greater effort to err on the side of conservation, to protect important habitat and reduce fishing impacts across the board, and to understand what is happening with all stocks.

She took the NPFMC to task for not taking “a truly ecosystem approach to management of crab and other species in the Bering Sea.”

Still, Goen said that to the council’s credit, they have an ecosystem report card that NOAA puts together, and the Plan Team looks at that when they are evaluating crab health every year. The council needs to look at the bigger picture, but right now the focus is still very much individual species management in the Bering Sea, she added.

In looking at tools for the future to stabilize crab fisheries, Goen pointed to mariculture and research that has shown that having female red king crab release their eggs into large tanks—where their offspring can survive to adulthood before release—has worked, she said.

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is currently asking for funds for crab mariculture from Congress, while also collaborating with the St. Paul community, Trident Seafoods and others to perform crab mariculture in Bristol Bay, Goen said.

Raising crab eggs through mariculture would likely be done on St. Paul Island, she remarked. 

More than 10 billion snow crab disappeared from the ocean in 2022, devastating that sector of the commercial fishing industry, where the loss was estimated at $200 million. Researchers still are trying to figure out all the factors in the snow crab crash, but warming oceans is considered a major factor.

Speaking at a public forum at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art last Dec. 12, Bob Foy, director of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said the fishery lost billions of snow crab in a matter of months.

“We don’t have a smoking gun if you will,” he admitted. “We don’t have one particular event that impacted the snow crab, except the heat wave.”

The High Arctic is one of the fastest changing ecosystems on earth and those changes affect the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands marine ecosystems, Foy said.

“Observations on Arctic water mass movement related to environmental conditions will help us better understand how future marine ecosystems will change and support living marine resources,” he stated. “We are continuing to study the climate features that affect the Bering Sea Ecosystem that led to the collapse of the snow crab stock.”  

Margaret Bauman is an Alaska journalist and photographer with an extensive background in Alaska’s industries and environmental issues related to those industries. A long-time Alaska resident, she has also covered news of national and international importance in other states on the staff of United Press International, the Associated Press, and CBS News.