The red king crab fishery is off to a booming start in Bristol Bay, despite predictions of a down season.
The fleet has caught two-thirds of its quota in just a dozen days, and managers say fishermen are unloading big, beautiful crab at the dock.
Gordon Christiansen is a commercial fisherman with more than 40 years of experience in the Bering Sea. This season, he said the crab were especially voracious eaters, quick to fill the pots dropped by his crew on the F/V Aleutian Mariner.
"From the time we set pots in the water, we were done in 60 hours," said Christiansen. "It was amazing, tremendous fishing. We'd like to go out again and do it again tomorrow."
Having already harvested their 120,000-pound allocation, his seven-vessel fleet is finished for the season. The average crab from their haul weighed just over seven pounds — a half-pound larger than normal, according to Christiansen.
His crew saw also more than just big adult males. They came across crab of both sexes and at all stages of life — a surprise after the summer trawl survey showed low numbers across the board and led to a 15 percent cut in the quota.
"I think we may have under-assessed the biomass out there, which is really a good thing," he said. "It's a bad thing that we don't get to catch more crab, but on the positive side, I think there's a lot more crab out there than we thought."
In Christiansen's experience, that's been the case for the past three years. While he acknowledges the population has been up and down in recent decades, he thinks fishermen could harvest more now.
"I don't know if there's something flawed in the way we're doing the surveys or extrapolating the numbers, but it looks very positive," he said.
Miranda Westphal is the area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She said the annual quota is set after analyzing survey data, population models, and the previous season's fishery performance.
Following a conservative harvest strategy, she said the department reduced this year's quota after the data showed a decline in male abundance and effective spawning, as well as little to no sign of new juvenile crab.
"I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fishery this season," she said. "I am really pleased that the fishery is performing well."
As of Wednesday, fishermen have caught 5.6 million pounds of of crab, which leaves about three million pounds still to harvest.
While the fishery officially closes in January, crabbers are expected to reach the quota sometime next month.