Difficult future ahead for Alaska’s crab industry

Published on
November 18, 2022
Fishermen sort through a crab catch on board a crab vessel.

A group of U.S. senators is asking the U.S. Commerce Department to rush an emergency declaration for several Alaskan crab fisheries that had their entire upcoming seasons canceled.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Washington’s two senators, Patty Murry and Maria Cantell, sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo asking her to declare a federal fishery disaster for the 2022-2023 Bering Sea snow crab, the 2022-2023 Bristol Bay red king crab, and the 2021-2022 Bristol Bay red king crab seasons. The cited an estimate from Alaska’s state government putting losses from the closures at USD 287.7 million (EUR 278.6 million).

“Many of these fishermen and businesses hail from both Alaska and Washington, and the impacts of these fishery disasters extend far beyond our states to consumers across the United States and the world,” they wrote. “The economic impact to downstream businesses such as seafood processors, gear suppliers, shipyards, and other downstream businesses will be even greater. Red king crab and snow crab are highly valued commodities traded internationally and relied upon by businesses that advertise these specialty foods at their restaurants and shops. Yet, the longer the disaster declaration and funding process takes, the greater the impact on our fishermen who are already facing incredibly difficult decisions that could include closing their businesses or filing for bankruptcy this year.”

The request for a federal fishery disaster declaration first came from Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy on 21 October, in response to a request from the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Dunleavy and the nonprofit trade group asked for the request to be tacked onto an already pending request of a disaster declaration for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery season of 2021-2022, which was canceled in September 2021.

Surveys of Alaska’s Bering Sea conducted in 2021 portended a dismal 2022 season, with a crash in crab populations partially blamed on a mortality event scientists still cannot fully explain. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Western Region Research Supervisor Ben Daly said in a public presentation on 10 November it will take at least another four years before the snow crab – also known as opilio crab – population is recovered enough to harvest commercially.

“Given the size composition, the population, mature male biomass and four-inch male numbers will likely get worse before they get better,” Daly said during his presentation, according to Alaska Fish News.

Daly cited the cancelation of several 2020 trawl surveys due to COVID-19 as a factor in the collapse, as it had a “terrible role in blocking the agency’s view of what was happening at that time,” since it resulted in his department setting the 2021 snow crab catch limit too high.

“In terms of the timing relative to snow crab biology and the collapse, that missing survey data point really couldn’t have come at a worse time with regards to our understanding of what was going on with the population at that time,” Daly said. “We had a 45-million-pound allowable catch that was, we now know, occurring in the midst of a dramatic population decline.”

Daly said the collapse could be partially due to warming waters as a result of climate change, which could be pushing crab populations northwards or into Russian waters, or could be resulting in the crab needing more food to maintain higher metabolisms or being eaten by predators such as cod.

Daly also echoed concerns issued by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers about bycatch from trawlers, which he said could be interfering with critical spawning habitats. For 2022-2023, trawlers have been given a bycatch allowance of 3.6 million snow crab, 26,445 red king crab, and 2.7 million bairdi crab. The bairdi, or Tanner, crab fishery is one of the few that will remain open for the upcoming season, though with a catch limit of around 2 million pounds. Daly suggested testing larger mesh-sized nets by trawlers, longer soak times for crab pots, and a series of gear modifications as a means of reducing crab bycatch.

In an ABSC press release, Mark Casto, the captain and owner the crab-fishing vessel Pinnacle, called for a reduction in allowed crab bycatch totals and restrictions on when and where trawlers are allowed to fish.

“It’s time all Bering Sea fisheries come together and figure out how to work together on the issues we have control over. Issues such as bycatch in all fisheries, not fishing in areas during times when crab are molting and mating, and targeting the predatory fish that feed on the crab,” he said. “If one fishery is closed, we need to lower the bycatch caps on all other fisheries. It’s time to start working together, we are supposed to be the leaders in sustainable fisheries, it’s time to act like it.”

In a 26 October statement, ABSC Executive Director Jamie Goen called for state and federal regulators to do more to protect and defend Alaska’s crab sector.

“We need more adaptive, responsive fisheries management. The current system is mired in decades of bureaucratic and legal processes that drive towards inaction and status quo. We need a system to manage U.S. fisheries that encourages and rewards conservation and swift action,” he said. “ABSC has recommended actions to help better manage and conserve Alaska’s crab stocks to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for years … These proposals are consistently denied, even in the face of growing evidence that these actions would have helped crab stocks. But we won’t give up fighting to rebuild these crab stocks that our livelihoods depend on.”

Goen said ABSC has reapplied to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for an for an emergency authorization of protections for red king crab and their habitat. ABSC has also called for the federal government to speed its provision of financial relief to fisheries that have experienced crashes like the ongoing situation in Alaska – in general, it takes about two to five years for fisheries relief funding to get to communities.

In the interim, the ABSC started a GoFundMe campaign aiming for USD 50,000 (EUR 48,427) in contributions to support crab fishermen who fish for king, snow, and bairdi crab.

The Alaskan city of St. Paul, which is home to a Trident Seafoods crab-processing plant, has also pushed for faster delivery of financial relief, as it faces a USD 2.7 million (EUR 2.6 million) budget shortfall from lost taxes resulting from the cancelation of the of snow crab season. The decline threatens the city’s ability to provide basic services, according to St. Paul City Manager Phillip Zavadil. Zavadil led the effort to declare an unprecedented cultural, economic, and social emergency with the goal of pushing government officials to realize the depth of the challenge facing his community.

“Outside of requesting a fisheries disaster, we decided to do a disaster declaration as you would do in a natural or manmade disaster,” he said. “We're trying to get creative and have people understand that this is going to happen more and more, and that we need to address it. We can do something now, instead of waiting for next year, when we don't have any funding or we can't provide services.”

Photo courtesy of Corey Arnold/Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers

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