Norton Sound crabbers become catcher-sellers to offload winter harvest
With no local buyer in Nome or the Norton Sound region to purchase Norton Sound Red King Crab from this winter’s harvest, commercial fishermen are needing to get creative to sell their catch.
Seven commercial fishers are registered to catch and sell Norton Sound red king crab right now, according to Jim Menard, the Arctic Area Manager for the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
“Starting in 2020, there was no buyer,” Menard said. “There’s been no buyer for the last four years for the commercial winter fishery. So, for crabbers to sell, they have to be a catcher-seller or a direct marketer, and then they can sell the crab.”
Adem Boeckmann is a commercial fisherman based in Nome. He says being a catcher-seller can reduce the amount of crab you catch per day — unless you have a buyer already lined up.
“It adds a lot of complexity to fishing for King Crab,” Boeckmann said. “We have to find buyers before we catch the crab and/or figure out how to hold the crab until we can sell them. You can put them in holding pots, but it really limits your ability to prosecute a fishery. It kind of puts you into the 10s and 20s area where you can catch 10 or 20 crab and sell those pretty much easily a day. Or you have to figure out how to ship them and keep them alive.”
Because crab is sold live, and not dead like salmon or other seafood, Menard added there are fewer restrictions on how catchers can sell their haul.
“It’s much easier to sell crab as a catcher-seller than it would be during salmon season, when the fish are dead, and you’re restricted to selling from your boat or getting a special thing from (Department of Environmental Conservation),” Menard said.
Despite the lack of a buyer in Norton Sound, the number of winter crabbers has seen an increase over the past four years.
“In 2020, the first year there was no buyer for the winter crab fishery, only two registered,” Menard said. “The next year, 2021, five registered. And then last year, in 2022, in the winter fishery we had nine registered, and at this point in the 2023 season we have seven registered.”
Boeckmann is working on a process to get his crab to the Anchorage market as fresh but cooked.
“Crab is very valuable, it’s a premium product,” Boeckmann said. “When you ship 100 crabs to Anchorage alive, if there’s not somebody on the other end that can put them into live tanks, it’s a ticking time bomb, if you will.”
A large percentage of the guideline harvest level will be caught in the spring, according to Menard.
“The guideline harvest level for the winter fishery is 31,400 pounds,” Menard said. “Historically, about 70 percent of the crab caught in the winter commercial fishery are caught in March and April, so in the spring months. We’ll see if we get a few more that are going to register later in the season.”
Catching red crab all depends on the sea ice conditions, and you can’t have a winter crab fishery without sea ice. For more information, see the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s sea ice page.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game estimates legal male biomass of Norton Sound red king crab to be 4.36 million pounds. Boeckmann says keeping the fishery healthy is of the utmost importance, whether for commercial or subsistence uses.
“We as user groups, whether subsistence commercial, all of us need to stay vigilant on keeping this crab population as healthy as possible,” Boeckmann added.
Western Alaskans outside of Nome who are interested in commercial crabbing can call the Fish & Game office to receive crab pot tags before crabbing at 1(800) 560-2271.
Image at top: ADF&G observer Anneliese Moll measures the carapace of an eastern Norton Sound red king crab. Photo by Jenn Ruckel, KNOM.