Unalaska petitions for relaxed rules in tanner crab closure
In hopes of saving a tanner crab fishery in the Bering Sea next month, the Unalaska City Council last week endorsed an emergency petition to the state Board of Fisheries for an amended harvest strategy despite a steep drop in the female crab population.
The petition was written by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the political arm of the Inter Cooperative Exchange, representing most crab boats. It calls for a special fish board meeting, to head off what it fears could be a complete closure, soon to be announced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The quotas haven't been announced yet, but will be soon in advance of the Oct. 15 opening date, and boat owners have been making nervous phone calls following scary results from the summer's annual trawl survey of the Bering Sea.
"We don't know anything yet, but I think that they're worried," said Miranda Westphal, shellfish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. "We've certainly been getting a lot of phone calls."
"Bering Sea crabbers were stunned last week when the outlooks for the upcoming fall and winter fisheries were revealed," prominent Alaska fish reporter Laine Welch wrote last week, showing "across the board" drops in the numbers of mature male and female snow crab, tanners and red king crab.
"Things are looking very bleak," said Unalaska City Council member Frank Kelty, who brought the emergency tanner petition to the city council's attention. Kelty worried about the loss of city sales tax revenues from the local sales of marine fuel and groceries to 65 crab boats. And if the snow crab season is closed, that would be a "terrible hit," he added.
Kelty said that even if the weaker eastern district for tanners is closed, perhaps the west could still have a fishery.
ABSC science advisor and policy analyst Ruth Christiansen complained of sexism in the tanner harvest strategy, since it relies too heavily on the numbers of females, which are not allowed to be harvested.
"The Bering Sea Tanner crab harvest strategy is the only harvest strategy for Bering Sea crab species and only harvest strategy for tanner crab throughout the state of Alaska that utilizes a female only threshold for opening a fishery," Christiansen said in the letter to Glenn Haight, fish board executive director.
"A female only threshold makes little sense for commercial fisheries specifically designed and executed to harvest only mature male crab," Christiansen wrote. The tanners are "neither overfished or experiencing overfishing," she said.
The survey was conducted by two federally-contracted fishing vessels, Alaska Knight and Vesteraalen, between May 31 and July 26, in 375 bottom trawls. It showed the steepest drop in mature female tanners in the eastern district, 7.7 million, down from 27.6 last year. In the west, it was considerably less, at 42.6 million this year, down from 45.4 mature females the previous year, according to the survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the western district, legal-size male tanners actually increased to 51.3 million, up from 46 million in 2015. In the east, legal male tanners declined from 30.7 million last year to 20.2 million this year.
Last season, in 2015-16, tanners earned $45.3 million in ex-vessel value, the price paid to fishermen, according to Christiansen. In the prior season of 2014-15, it was $25.6 million.
"A complete closure of the Bering Sea tanner fishery will have extremely negative socioeconomic impacts on harvesters, processors, coastal communities, and the State of Alaska when this level of revenue is unnecessarily foregone for the next several commercial seasons," Christiansen said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org