Alaska’s Red King Crab Savings Area to remain open for fishing, despite population crash

A map highlighting the Red King Crab Savings Area

Pollock trawlers will be allowed to fish in Alaska’s Red King Crab Savings Area this season, despite a mysterious mortality event that has resulted in the cancelation of the red king crab season in the largest U.S. state.

In October 2022, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled all snow crab, red king crab, and blue king crab seasons for 2022-2023, after trawl surveys showed a continuing crash in abundance. The winter red king crab season in Alaska’s Bering Sea was also canceled in 2021-2022. In response, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers had petitioned NOAA to close the Red King Crab Savings Area, an area of 3,998 nautical miles (4,600 land miles) in the eastern Bering Sea, to all forms of fishing. The area has been closed to bottom trawling since 1996; however, midwater trawls and fixed gear, longlines, and pots have been allowed to fish inside of the area.

The request was to close the area from 1 January to 30 June to all gear types under emergency regulation was proposed as a temporary measure of conservation while the search for a longer-term solution was decided upon by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council via gathering data, public testimony, and eventually taking a vote – a process that can sometimes take years.

“The fishery is collapsed, and we are closed, so this is an emergency situation,” Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen said. “That was the point of the emergency action plan: let’s put a band-aid on it for now and give the stock a chance to recover while we figure out a longer-term plan because the council is going to take at least one to two years, if not more.”

But NOAA denied the request on 20 January, reasoning petition did not meet the criteria needed to prove that an emergency exists, and that adapting an emergency regulation to close the area did not substantiate circumventing the council process.

“Specifically, the available information does not support a finding that the proposed emergency regulations would address the low abundance and declining trend of mature female Bristol Bay red king crab,” NOAA said in an announcement.

Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, a trade association representing five companies that own and operate 15 U.S.-flag catcher-processor vessels that participate principally in the Alaska pollock fishery, said her group opposed the closure petition and was relieved by NOAA’s decision.

“We didn’t believe the petition met the [emergency regulation] criteria, but one never assumes any outcome,” Madsen said.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council discussed the issue of trawl bycatch of crab and salmon during its December meeting. Testimony during the meeting included evidence that pelagic trawlers operated their gear near the ocean floor from 40 percent to 100 percent of the time when the pollock schools are deep. But further evidence showed all gear types fishing the restricted area – and especially, gear-types targeting halibut and cod in the area – account for red king crab mortality in the area, with the pollock trawl fishery taking just a fraction of the prohibited crab. 

From 2013 to October of 2021, an average of 4,906 red king crab were caught by all gear types from January to June, a critical period of breeding and molting in the crab life-cycle. In 2015, the incidental take total hit 15,756 king crab. During the same period, pollock trawlers caught an average of eight king crab, with a high of 23 animals in 2019.

As for the validity of the data pertaining to the incidental take of crab, Madsen reports that each of the 13 vessels operating inside of the prohibited area rely upon two observers and multiple onboard cameras.

“Clearly, we’re not targeting trawlers,” Goen said. “We need to look at all sectors, including the directed fishery. We’re closed right now, so all of our impacts are gone.”

Goen said for every crab making it back to the cod end of the trawl, many more may have been killed by headgear when the nets are towed near the bottom. Goen said a research effort beginning in March 2023 will hopefully yield information that leads to refinement of crab pots to cut down on the incidental take of king crab.

“This could have a substantial impact on crab recovery,” she said.

Meanwhile, the pollock trawl harvest inside of the Red King Crab Savings Area has accounted for an average 10.5 percent of the annual pollock quota in recent years.  Though trawlers would likely have caught their A season allocation of this year’s total 1.3 million metric tons elsewhere in the Bering Sea, the closed area would have added the risk that displacing fishing effort to alternative areas may have increased the incidental harvest of salmon, herring, and other protected species.

Red king crab abundance surveys in the summer of 2022 revealed 120 mature female king crab per square nautical mile within the RKCSA, and the greatest concentrations of legal male crabs were found in the northwest and southeast corners of the area. Given the tapestry of other habitat protection areas that are closed to trawling, displacing the fishing effort inside of the Red King Crab Savings Area could land gear on areas of greater crab abundance.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has approved the use of idle crabbers beginning in March as research vessels to glean data that could drive management changes by late 2023.

But for the crabbers that could be too little, too late, given the speed of the process, Goen said.

“To be clear, I think we need trawling out there,” she said. “We need to be bringing healthy protein to the world. We need food security, but we’ve got to balance it in a way that doesn’t harm other stocks or that helps all of these stocks be as sustainable as possible. There's a way to do it; we’re just going to have to work better together, and we’re going to have to move in time and space to be able to harvest and maximize all of our allocations.”

Image courtesy of NOAA


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