Closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, coupled with an 88% slash in the snow crab quota, has prompted the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to explore ways to help restore crab fisheries to abundance.
During its October meeting, which was held virtually due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the council voted to request an analysis on likely impacts of expanding the red king crab savings area through an emergency rule to expand its northern boundary.
The analysis, which could be presented at the council’s December meeting, will assess the immediate conservation benefits for female red king crab and whether an emergency rule would improve the likelihood of a directed red king crab fishery in the following year, consistent with NOAA’s emergency rule criteria.
Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, said that while the analysis is a necessary part of the process, she’s concerned about the timing.
“I am pleased that the council is moving forward with action to help the crab,” she said. “My only concern is the timing of bringing the analysis forward in time to protect the crab by Jan. 20” – the day the groundfish fisheries begin.
“It is an insurance policy to protect the crab where we know they are and because they are such a conservation concern right now, and we know the trawl gear is impacting the crab,” she said.
Chris Woodley, executive director of the Groundfish Forum, offered another perspective.
“In the bigger picture, we believe that fixed closure areas are not the best approach to reduce bycatch of prohibited species that are moving in response to changing environmental conditions,” Woodley said. “Measures like rolling hot spots are more responsive and better-suited to times when environmental conditions are rapidly changing.”
Woodley added that item three of the council’s crab motion prioritized what he described as a more modern approach for future consideration. The Groundfish Forum sees the move as a more effective approach.
Once the council has the analysis in hand, said Woodley, “we will continue to urge them to include measures to control the largest source of RKC mortality in the Bering Sea, which is the Bering Sea cod pot fishery.”
The council heard extensive testimony on the crab issue during staff tasking, including comments from Jim Stone, a member of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers and the Bering Sea pot cod co-op.
Stone told the council that the large amount of king crab bycatch by the pot cod fleet for the past five years or so could have been avoided by not fishing on the king crab grounds.
While his boat is not allowed to fish on any bottom where the king crab live, many others in the pot cod fleet do not feel the same way, he said.
“In normal years fishing there with the associated bycatch is irresponsible. In the king crab closure years, it is absolutely unbelievable to me,” he stated.
Stone recommended that the council proceed at a minimum with an emergency closure to pot cod fishing in the nearshore, no-trawl area and red king crab savings area.
“A voluntary standdown on the red king crab savings area is not enough,” he said. “It must be on all king crab bottom. This bycatch problem also highlights the need for a pot cod catch share program, with strong bycatch limits to encourage avoidance of all species of low abundance.”
Ed Poulsen, part owner of two Bering Sea/Aleutian Island crab vessels and a quota share owner in the Bering Sea crab fishery, offered his perspective, telling the council that the sharp decline of red king crab and snow crab appears to be environmentally driven and is not likely due to the directed fishery or bycatch.
Poulsen said he’d like to see every sector voluntarily make efforts to reduce their bycatch of crab and reduce the potential of mortality, or institute emergency measures. He added that the recent bycatch of red king crab in pot cod fisheries is disturbing.
”This is not the first time this has happened and there is too much effort around known abundance of red king crab,” he observed. “I believe this sector can catch plenty of pot cod if they concentrate their fishing west of Amak (Island) and volunteer to close fishing east of there.”
Poulsen also said he would encourage the Amendment 80 sector to expand the red king crab savings area 30 nautical miles north, as that seems to be an area where female red king crab congregate recently.
“Ideally a winter survey would occur next year to identify areas of red king crab abundance so the trawlers can voluntarily stay out of these areas,” he said.
Poulsen added that he would like to see the pollock industry also voluntarily stay out of the red king crab savings area, and that he’s very uncomfortable with the level effort of the pollock factory trawler fleet in the B season in relation to areas of high abundance of male and female snow crab.
“The fact that these vessels fish in areas of high abundance of snow crab with nets on the bottom at times and have no bycatch makes me scratch my head. There is simply no accounting for this,” he remarked.
Poulsen encouraged the council to incentivize the trawl sectors that as there are potential unobserved mortality risks to crab, particularly during times of molting.
“The status quo does not work anymore,” he said.