Norton Sound Winter Crabbers Challenged to Find Buyers

A major buyer of Norton Sound winter commercial red king crab opted for conservation reasons to abstain from purchases for the fishery opening on Feb. 29, leaving harvesters to find their own markets for their catch.

The decision of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to require all commercial harvesters to find their own markets through other legal means like a catcher-seller permit or other direct marketing programs.

ADF&G advised the commercial harvesters two weeks in advance of the opener that they must contact the Nome Fish & Game office to register for catcher-seller or other direct marketing permits before selling crab to the public.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council in early February set the preliminary harvest rate of 7 percent of the legal male biomass of 2.43 million pounds, to allow for a total commercial guideline harvest level of 170,100 pounds.

This level of commercial harvest allows a buffer of some 31,000 pounds from the allowable biological catch of 201,000 pounds, to account for subsistence harvests and incidental mortality of non-target crab discards, ADF&G biologists said. The guideline harvest level for the winter fishery was set at 8 percent of the total commercial GHL, or a total of 13,608 pounds. Crab pots for the winter commercial fishery are required to be set through the ice.

Anyone intending to participate in the commercial harvest either as a permit holder or crew member was also required to cease subsistence crabbing by noon on Feb. 15.

The unusual challenge of harvesters being required to find their own buyers came after the board of NSEDC advised ADF&G that it would not be purchasing the crab from the fishery and urged the state agency to close the fishery for 2020 to preserve crab stocks.

The NSEDC board decision came after Charlie Lean, of the Northern Norton Sound ADF&G advisory committee told the board that a decline in reproduction of Norton Sound red king crab stocks is anticipated. NSEDC is one of several community development quota entities established under a state of Alaska program to boost the economies of coastal communities by giving them allocations of a percentage of annual allowable catch of groundfish and shellfish.

The NSEDC board was concerned when Lean said that trawl surveys can’t find male crab and that commercial and subsistence crabbers can’t find male crab either.

Lean said that in 2019 for the first time since 2012, ADF&G observer data showed there were more female crab with no or few eggs than there were with large clutches of eggs, and that many females with no eggs indicate there aren’t enough male crab to fertilize females.

Lean worked as an ADF&G Nome area management biologist for 15 years and assisted in management of the Norton sound red king crab fishery in its early years. He said the same situation occurred in 1982, when crab were overfished and the fishery crashed. It took 15 years for the population to recover, he said.

NSEDC noted that last year harvesters caught 82,335 pounds of crab in the combined winter and summer commercial fisheries compared with an average harvest of over 460,000 pounds the five previous years. Some harvesters last year reported fishing in a 100-mile area and not finding any crab or breaking even financially for the season.

“From the information we received, I’d rather err in favor of the crab population instead of a few hundred thousand dollars on what might make a poor fishery” said Dan Harrelson vice chair of NSEDC. “There are not crab around and I’m afraid we’re going to lose the resource.”

The CDQ group urged their fishermen to transition to halibut or cod for the season.