Low crab counts force closure of crabbing seasons

Crab pots stacked in Adak, Alaska.
Crab pots stacked in Adak, Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 2:21 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 12, 2022 at 12:17 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The winter crabbing seasons for Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab offshore of Western Alaska have been shut down by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, according to a press release.

The decisions were made Monday based on trawl survey results completed by Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Department Area Management Biologist for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Miranda Westphal said that the decision was partially based on needing to allow enough crab to reproduce.

“Fishing when the stock is that level will only damage the reproductive capacity of that stock in the future,” Westphal said.

Fish and Game said the 2022-23 red king crab season in Bristol Bay was closed due to counts that are below what the department deems sustainable levels. Particularly, the department said they were concerned about the levels of mature female crabs they saw in the population and the impact the low numbers would have in future years.

“They are going to be the ones who are reproducing and producing juveniles that will eventually grow and recreate into a fishable size, and those have been low, and becoming lower and lower each year for quite some time,” Westphal said.

It’s the same for the snow crab season in the Bering Sea, a wider swath of fishing waters off the coast of Western Alaska that also includes Bristol Bay.

Department officials said the decision was made with input from fishermen, harvesters, and community leaders that rely on the industry, and made the call with an eye on the future conservation of the crabbing industry.

“Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock. Efforts to advance our science and understanding of crab population dynamics are underway,” the release stated. “With crab industry input, ADF&G will continue to evaluate options for rebuilding, including potential for sustainably fishing during periods of low abundance.”

Crab populations in the Bering Sea have declined in recent years, particularly snow crab populations, which have plummeted by as much as 80%, according to trawling numbers. Researchers have pointed to several reasons, noting shifting migration routes and the effects of climate change among them.

However, local fishermen worry about how the cancellation will impact their livelihood. That includes third-generation Bering Sea crab fisherman Gabriel Prout from Kodiak.

“My father has been fishing for over 40 years in the Bering Sea. I fish alongside my brothers. My mom has crab fished before,” Prout said.

He said the outcome of the decision to suspend the season will be devastating.

“100% of revenue from one sector, it’s hard to come up with a replacement for that,” Prout said.

Prout said that many fishermen invested in the snow crab fishery while the stocks were still high.

“We trusted in the summer trawl survey that gives us the result of how much we can fish. we took out loans to buy into this fishery,” Prout said.

He said it will be a struggle for many fishermen trying to break even this year, leaving many with the conclusion of bankruptcy. His family, he said, will be one of them.

“The state’s decision to close the fishery is really leaving us with the options of bankruptcy or somehow miraculously finding a way to make this work,” Prout said.

Prout said that he is holding out hope that things will turn around.

However, Fish and Game predicts a continuation of population decline for the next several years.

“We are a naturally optimistic family, so we are going to hope and pray that we can make this work,” Prout said. “But right now, it is very bleak.”