Increased Percentage of Old Red King Crab Attracts More Barnacles

Quotas for Bristol Bay red king crab increased to 9.98
million pounds for the 2014-2015 season, up from 8.6 million pounds a year
earlier, good news for harvesters of the fishery known as the deadliest catch.
But a technical memorandum on the 2014 Eastern Bering Sea
Continental Shelf Bottom Trawl Survey, notes that 56 percent of the legal-sized
male surveyed were new hard shell crabs and 44 percent were old shell and very
old shell crabs, with the majority of old shell males caught in central Bristol

The older the crab get, the more infrequently they molt, and
very old shell crab do not molt, creating a more inviting environmental for
barnacles, who cling to the shell, and use their appendages to reach into the
water column to draw plankton and detritus into the shell for consumption.
There have been a lot more old shell crab in the last couple
of years, notes Bob Foy, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center Kodiak
Old shell and very old shell crabs are more likely to have
an abundance of barnacles aboard their shells, making them a less than
lucrative catch.
Anecdotal reports from fishermen, a few of which came to the
attention of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Dutch Harbor, voiced
concerns of high-grading, the dumping of large quantities of barnacled legal
male red king crab.
While high-grading is not illegal, it is a cause of concern
for state biologists, who were passing these anecdotal accounts to data
collectors on board 20 percent of the vessels harvesting the crab.
Regulations dictate that processors must accept the king
crab, even with barnacles from holders of A shares, the individual processing
quota shares, but that they don’t have to accept B and C share with barnacles
on it.
Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Intercoop Exchange
in Seattle, said that if the fishermen are getting a lot of dirty crab, they
are asked by the coop to move to another area, but that all legal king crab
landed onto a boat stayed on the boat.
The department has an interest in this, said Heather Fitch,
an area management biologist at Dutch Harbor. “The extra mortality is not good
for the stock.
“There is no regulation prohibiting high-grading
specifically, but that is the excess removal of the stock, so it is counted in
the acceptable biological catch.
“We discourage fishermen from doing so and discourage
processors from giving incentives to do so.”
Due to extensive high-grading during the 2005-2006 season,
the first year the federal crab rationalization plan was in effect, the state
ended up reducing the total allowable catch of red king crab by 5 percent the
following year, she said.
Harvesters were still engaged in the fishery in late
October, with observers on board collecting data, and what data was available
was considered preliminary, said Mary Schwenzseier, the state shellfish
observer program coordinator at Dutch Harbor.

The jury is still out on whether the percentage of
high-grading was more significant than usual this year, and what action the Alaska
Department of Fish and Game will take.