Norton Sound CDQ Applauds Changes in Commercial Crab Guidelines

A community development quota association representing 15 villages in
the Bering Strait region is applauding decisions made at the recent
Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting regarding guidelines for the Norton
Sound red king crab fishery.

A change made last summer in how the state Department of Fish and
Game estimates the crab population in Norton Sound meant that
commercial fishermen risked seeing their quota cut nearly in half this
year. Despite all signs pointing to a healthy and thriving crab
population, revising the estimate meant that either the commercial
harvest or the rule that governed it would have to change if fishermen
were going to be able to fish at levels they had for the past decade.

Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. officials said the state
board put concerns of Norton Sound fishermen and processors at ease when
it approved a proposal brought forward by NSEDC to change the rules and
essentially keep the harvest at status quo.

“The red king crab population appears to be at a 20-year high in
Norton Sound,” said NSEDC biologist West Jones. “Our rate of commercial
harvest has supported a number of fishermen while allowing the crab
stocks to enjoy slow, steady growth.”

To understand this change, it helps to understand how the current
guidelines work. Each year, the level of the summer commercial harvest
is set as a percentage of the legal male biomass, or LMB. The harvest
guidelines for the past decade or so have capped harvests at 10 percent
of this biomass. The state agency uses a model to determine LMB, which
has found a biomass between 3 million and 4 million pounds for the past
decade. This has resulted in harvests between 300,000 -400,000 pounds of

Last year, the state Department of Fish and Game took another
look at the model and concluded that their formula for estimating the
crab population had been incorrect for the past decade, resulting in an
over-estimation for all those years. That means commercial crab
fishermen were actually harvesting at an approximate rate of 12 percent
for the past decade, rather than 10 percent as was believed.

With the new model lowering the population estimate by about 1
million pounds, the 10 percent threshold would have taken a big bite out
of the commercial harvest had it remained on the books. “The reduction
in the crab biomass was purely due to changes in the model,” said Kevin
Keith, a biologist with NSEDC. “The actual crab population in Norton
Sound is doing quite well. All indicators lead us to believe that we
have a stable or increasing population of crabs. It’s a wonderful

In spite of the stability of the crab population, changes in the
model meant that the harvest level was going to be drastically reduced
from the range of 300,000 to 400,00 pounds down to between 200,000 and
300,000 pounds.

Charlie Lean, NSEDC director of fisheries research and
development, worked with the state agency to develop harvest guidelines
for the summer commercial crab fishery, with included a 7 percent
harvest limited at between 1.25 and 2 million pounds LMB, 13 percent
harvest limit between 2 and 3 million pounds LMB, and 15 percent harvest
limit above 3 million pounds LMB.