Complaint Filed with NOAA Fisheries Questions Data on Bristol Bay Red King Crab Fishery

A complaint filed with NOAA Fisheries contends that the agency paved the way for the collapse of the Alaska red king crab fishery by sampling bias and data falsification, which inflated annual population estimates and led to years of overfishing.

The complaint was filed through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) by Braxton Dew, a retired fisheries biologist in Kodiak who spent 25 years with NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA officials said they are looking into the matter and will respond within guidelines of the formal review process.

“In my experience, they have 60 days to respond, but they often ask for an extension,” said Jeff Ruch, director of Pacific PEER.

The complaint alleges that National Marine Fisheries Service corrupted its standard systematic sampling design during the 1970s by conducting extra, non-random trawl sampling in areas known from previous surveys to be prime habitat for large male king crab. This alleged biased sampling resulted in an increase in the apparent abundance of Bristol Bay king crab, the complaint said.

From 1972 through 1978, NMFS population estimates appeared to track a phenomenal increase of nearly 800% in Bristol Bay legal male abundance, with those inflated population estimates resulting in harvest quotas that led to an all-time-record harvest of 130 million pounds in 1980. By 1983, the collapse of the fishery occurred, the complaint contends.

While NMFS attributed that demise of crabs to “a drastic increase in natural mortality” associated with a meteorological regime-shift, actual evidence of a causal link between the 1976 regime shift and abrupt collage of those crab stocks never materialized, even after 40 years of investigation, said Dew. NOAA Fisheries officials responded to the allegations in early May, noting that the agency, in coordination with federal and state partners, is responsible for fostering healthy, productive and sustainable marine fisheries.

The response provided via Bob Foy, science and research director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said NOAA’s management process is based on science and conducted according to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

The NOAA statement did not specifically address the allegations. It said that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and NOAA Fisheries work together to produce the Bristol Bay red king crab stock assessment in accordance with the co-management agreement outlined in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Crab Fishery Management Plan.

“Like all NOAA Fisheries stock assessments, the Bristol Bay red king crab stock assessment is subject to a public transparent and rigorous peer-review process,” the statement said. “Over time, the assessment process has continued to be enhanced and improved with input from a variety of sources.”

NOAA said the agency is always interested in other points of view about marine populations and plans to look at issues raised by the PEER complaint, then respond in accordance with the formal review process outlined in NOAA’s Information Quality Guidelines.