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NSEDC Concerned Crab Stock Could Crash, ADF&G Moving Forward with Winter Season

Red crabs piled on top of one another.

Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation and the Alaska Department of Fish & Game are split on how to approach this winter’s commercial crabbing season in the Norton Sound region.

Following a poor year for Norton Sound red king crab in 2019, ADF&G has set this year’s commercial guideline harvest level (GHL) at 170,100 lbs. That’s a 20,000 lb. increase from 2019, as Jim Menard, ADF&G Area Manager for the Norton Sound region explains.

Allowable biological catch is a little over 200,000 pounds and we figured giving 10,000 lbs. to subsistence was a pretty good cushion when they got about 4,000 lbs. last year and then we say about 10,000 lbs. for mortality. So then I have a little play…sometimes I overshoot in that commercial fishery in the summer.”

According to a report from ADF&G, last year’s GHL of roughly 150,000 lbs. was the lowest the Norton Sound has seen in 20 years. Even with that fact, commercial crabbers were only able to catch about half of that amount for the winter and summer seasons. Menard says the significant drop in crab numbers was expected by the department based on previous trawl surveys and data from the summer commercial fishery.

“And what the trawl survey showed was this drop that was going to occur, that we weren’t going to have good recruitment into the fishery, meaning the legal size crab that could be caught, that this was expected to happen…and there are a lot of little ones (crab) coming again.”

This kind of drop has happened before. According to Menard, in the mid-90s, Norton Sound saw five years of GHLs at 340,000 pounds followed by a significant dip. Menard says the dip was anticipated or forecast by the department but still from 1997 through 1999, the GHL for crab dropped to 80,00 lbs. ADF&G data indicates that actual harvest during 1998 and 1999 was around 30,000 pounds.

NSEDC cites that crash as taking three generations of crab for the population to recover, and is a reason the department should take caution now. NSEDC also says Fish & Game is looking at the wrong numbers. According to a statement from NSEDC’s Board of Directors, last year’s observer data from ADF&G showed there were more female crab with little to no eggs than there were with large clutches of eggs. NSEDC says that indicates there aren’t enough male crab to fertilize females, something that hasn’t been seen since 2012.

Wes Jones, the director of NSEDC’s Fisheries Research & Development says, “the department (ADF&G) is relying too heavily on the prediction of the Norton Sound red king crab model. They’re not looking close enough at all the other indicators that show a stock in stress.”

To preserve the future of the crab fishery, NSEDC’s Board decided they won’t buy red king crab through Norton Sound Seafood Products (NSSP) during this year’s winter or summer crabbing seasons. 

Without a buyer lined up, ADF&G says it will wait to open the winter commercial crab season pending interest from another buyer or local catcher-sellers with the proper permits.

Menard reiterates that last year’s drop in the number of crabs was expected, but admits it was surprising that the relatively low GHL wasn’t even close to being reached in 2019.

“Did the crab get spread out and they (crabbers) couldn’t locate them? I mean what was the situation that happened last year? Are we finally getting down too low where they’re just not at a concentration where it’s easy to catch them (crab). Or did they move much farther offshore with water temperatures, things like that? We don’t have an answer for that.”

ADF&G wants to gather one more year of trawl survey data on red king crab this summer before they look at making any changes to their current harvest model. NSEDC is advocating for the department and the Alaska Board of Fisheries to close the Norton Sound crab fishery for 2020.

Image at top: Norton Sound red king crab. Photo provided by Adem Boeckmann (2019).

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