By Margaret Bauman
A fast-paced Bristol Bay red king crab season, with the quota slashed to 7.8 million pounds, bodes well for the commercial harvesters and processors in the short term, as wholesale buyers scramble for as much as they can purchase.
Where this will all lead in the marketplace is the unanswered question.
The fishery began on Oct. 15 and by Nov. 1, 82 percent of the total allowable harvest for individual fishing quota shares was landed, with just 1.2 million pounds of IFQ to go, said Heather Fitch, area management biologist for shellfish at Dutch Harbor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Of the total 7.8 million pounds, 7,050,600 pounds went to the IFQ permit holders, with another 783,400 pounds to community development quota entities, whose harvest pace is generally the same as that of the IFQ entities, Fitch said.
Sixty-two vessels were participating in the 2011-2012 crab harvest, down three from a year ago, she said.
“It was a weird season,” said Rob George, of the Las Vegas based Crab Broker, who was there at Dutch Harbor to watch vessels deliver at that port. “It kind of reminded me a little bit of the old derby style days.
“Most of the boats were on the crab. A couple of boats came in with their quota after three to four days. Fishermen were saying there are crab all over the place.”
George, who generally spends 30 to 40 days at Dutch Harbor while the king crab are coming in, said he arrived on Oct. 20, saw his first delivery on Oct. 21 and departed on Oct. 28 this year.
“The weather wasn’t bad,” he said. “All of our planes of fresh got out on time. It was less stressful because we shipped less fresh crab daily, because of the high prices.”
That’s $20 a pound delivered to buyers in Japan this year, and domestic consumers “will be paying north of $20 (a pound), depending on what they are buying,” he said.
One harvester said he was getting $9 a pound for crab delivered, compared to about $7.50 a pound a year ago, not counting the additional retro money once prices were established.
A year ago, with the total allowable catch set at 13.4 million pounds for the IFQ program and 1.5 million pounds for the CDQ groups, Japanese prices were $14 a pound to wholesalers, and first wholesale prices domestically were $14.50 to $15.25 a pound.
There is no cheap crab on the market right now and most consumers won’t be able to find true Alaska king crab in most stores, George said.
Russian king crab is starting to come over and since the Japanese bought the vast majority of the Russian small king crab, the big king crab is coming in the United States, at price just below Alaska king crab prices, he said. “As long as people keep buying it, they will keep selling it at those prices,” he said.
Also on the bright side, George said, many skippers and crews told him they had a lot of undersized crab in their pots that they returned promptly to the ocean, which should bode well for the 2012-2013 red king crab season.
George said some skippers were telling him the water temperature this year was back up to where it was five or six years ago, and so they went to where they found an abundance of crab back then, and sure enough, there they were.
Kodiak harvester Mark Israelson, the skipper aboard the Island Mist, which delivered 100,000 pounds of red king crab at King Cove, was one of those concerned about the survey that led to the slashed quota. “They (ADF&G) go to the same areas (every year) and do their survey. They tow in exactly the same areas every year. We move around in those areas differently than they do,” to find the crab, he said.
The abundance of all that crab left some harvesters puzzled over why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had slashed the quota by 47 percent, but Fitch, as well as Jeff Regnart, the department’s director of commercial fisheries, said the department was following standard procedures of several kinds of data, including that collected by trawl surveys, to determine the allowable catch. “They think we are being too conservative, but we try to do the best job possible with the money we have,” Regnart said.
In-season data from the 2011-12 fishery will be used to determine next year’s quota.
While harvesters are making more money per pound this year, they are mindful that that the quota was markedly lower, and were not that happy with the high prices, George said.
“Typically when you see these prices increase, they pay for it down the road. It gets taken off the menus. It’s not good for the industry at these prices,” he said.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at email@example.com.