Bristol Bay’s multi-million-dollar red king crab fishery has been shuttered for the 2021-2022 season in the wake of a National Marine Fisheries Service trawl survey that revealed that crab stocks failed to meet the regulatory threshold to open the fishery.
It’s the first time the famed fishery has been closed in over 25 years.
While fishery managers are still trying to determine harvest levels for crab fisheries that will open, the Bering Sea crab fleet and others across the Pacific Northwest engaged in crab fisheries are bracing for the economic fallout and calling for new conservation measures.
News of the closure is incredibly disappointing and concerning, said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, but it is also a sign of sustainability in action.
In a statement issued on Tues., Sept. 7, ABSC said preliminary estimates are that the closure of the red king crab fishery and reduction in snow crab harvest, due to a downward trend in those stocks, could cost harvesters well over $100 million.
“This hit affects everyone in the crab industry, roughly 70 vessels and over 400 fishermen and their families, along with the processors and fishing communities that rely on crab revenues,” the statement said.
“Further action should have already been taken to help the crab stocks rebound,” Goen added, including the research that crabbers trade association urged the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to pursue back in January to protect crab stocks in Southwestern Bristol Bay from high fishing impacts, including unobserved fishing mortality.
National Standard 9 on bycatch in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act defines unobserved mortality as “fishing mortality due to an encounter with fishing gear that does not result in capture of fish.”
Their concern, crabbers told federal fishery managers, is the potential of mobile gear like pelagic and non-pelagic trawl gear, to cause unobserved mortality on crab species with an inability to quickly move out of the way of trawl gear dragging through the bottom of the ocean.
Crabbers also want more information on the effects of fishing on crab essential fish habitat including Southwestern Bristol Bay, and on the impact of encounters with fishing gear when crab stocks are molting, mating or at other vulnerable life stages throughout the year.
Crabbers also expressed concerns about the decline in snow crab, a big change for a few years ago when they were seeing the largest recruitment event in the history of that fishery. The crabbers noted that while many markets prefer Alaska crab, if those markets are lost to foreign production it will be difficult to get them back.
Now is the time to continue strong support for crab research and to carry it through into action towards resilience and sustainability, they said.