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Bering Sea snow crab and red king crab fisheries close amid struggling stocks

Opilio Snow crab .jpg
Courtesy of Miguel Camacho Castillo
Last season, the total allowable catch for snow crab was reduced by almost 90% due to drops in population, and this year, snow crab surveys hit a dangerously low threshold.

Bering Sea snow crab will close for the first time in the fishery’s history.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Monday afternoon that snow crab — also known as opilio crab — and Bristol Bay red king crab would not open for the upcoming fall and winter fishing seasons.

Miranda Westphal, an area management biologist for ADF&G, said stocks are just too low to justify opening either fishery.

“All of our crab stocks in the Bering Sea have seen declines the last few years,” Westphal said. “[For] red king crab, we've been seeing declines for a little over a decade now. We just see very little recruitment coming into the population — not a lot of crab maturing into a fishable size. And so we're just seeing more of that this year.”

Many fishermen were hopeful for some kind of opening, but still others were anticipating a closure for king crab. Last year, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the fishery was canceled due to low stocks.

Now, the snow crab population has been declared “overfished” by fisheries management.

That comes just a few years after state surveys showed record highs for snow crab recruitment. Such a drastic drop comes as a surprise.

“In 2021, we saw the largest crash we've ever seen in snow crab, in the history of the survey,” she said. “So something happened during that time, and I think a lot of the science and research right now is going into trying to figure out what happened.”

Some theories suggest that climate change and warming ocean conditions may have been a cause.

We had a lot of crab, they were sort of all balled up where the colder water was,” Westphal said. “And then [there was] a huge temperature spike. And so one of the thoughts is that there just wasn't enough food for the metabolic needs of such a large dense population of crab, which is likely the cause for a lot of that decline.”

Last season, the total allowable catch for snow crab was reduced by almost 90% due to drops in population. But this year, Westphal said snow crab surveys hit a dangerously low threshold.

It's sort of this emergency stop gap in the harvest strategy that says, ‘Oh, my gosh, the stock is at such a low level, we're in danger of not being able to recover,’” she said. “So this year — even with error in survey abundance numbers or trawl surveys, or whatever we have — the risk of harming the stock was too high.”

Those crab will need time to recover and repopulate. And organizations that regulate fisheries, like the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, will have to take time to figure out how they can help crab populations thrive, as well as what can be done for fishermen in the meantime, Westphal said.

“It's unimaginable the impacts this is going to have,” she said. “I think it's going to result in a lot less revenue for communities. There’s going to be a lot less programs that communities can fund. I think it's going to really impact our fishermen, the harvesters, the private boat owners, the processing workers. I think it's just gonna have these ripple effects throughout the community.”

The closures could be devastating for generational crab-fishing families as well, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen. The organization represents about 350 independent crabbers that are part of the Aleutian Island and Bering Sea pot fisheries. Goen said the fleet may face losses of nearly half a billion dollars as they enter a second year of diminishing stocks.

“The economic impacts are simply devastating,” Goen said. “We have a 60-vessel fleet, we're expecting to lose a chunk of that fleet this year with this closure. And these are small, independent fishing families. Many of them are second or third generation crabbers.”

Goen said she’s disappointed that it’s come to this point, where opilio stocks have become dangerously low and king crab is closed for another year. For years, scientists and biologists have warned fisheries management boards that stocks were in danger, but she said not enough preventative action was taken.

“It's hard for us as an industry to accept the closure,” Goen said. “We know we need to be closed for conservation of the stock because it's at a critical low level. Yet the council has let this continued decline happen and didn't do anything about it.”

She said there’s several ways to prevent further depletion of stocks and measures that can help restore crab populations. One option, according to Goen, is to keep all fishing sectors — whether that’s pot fishermen or pelagic and ground trawlers — out of certain areas where crab go to mate or where they molt and become particularly vulnerable.

Bering Sea Crabbers brought an emergency request to the Secretary of Commerce to keep all gear types out of the red king crab savings area — that’s an area in Bristol Bay where both male and female crab go at certain times of the year.

In the meantime, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers is also asking the federal government to provide some kind of disaster relief to the affected fleet. Goen’s hoping they can push for that funding to be dispersed as quickly as possible.

Not all hope is completely lost for the crab fleet. Both western and eastern Bering sea tanner crab fisheries will open Oct. 15, but the catch limits for those fisheries are still low, at just over 2 million pounds.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
Related Content
  • The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced earlier this month that all major crab stocks are down. And for the first time in over 25 years, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed.
  • The City of Unalaska is preparing for major budget reductions. At Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting, City Manager Erin Reinders told council members that the recent red king crab closure, and major reductions in the snow crab fishery, will hit the city hard.
  • It was still dark at Unalaska’s Robert Storrs Small Boat Harbor, just before 5 a.m. on a fair spring morning. Normally, Dustan Dickerson and his three-man crew would be warming up the engine of the 54-foot Raven Bay by now so they could head out a few miles to haul and set cod pots, eat, sleep and repeat for a couple days before returning home. But on this mid-March morning, the crew was joined by three sleepy-eyed greenhorns: Corynn Lekanoff, Kaidon Parker and Anatoly Fomin. The three local teens were headed out for a day trip to get a glimpse into the life of Unalaska’s small boat fishermen. The trip is part of an outreach program led and started earlier this year by Dickerson, captain and owner of the Raven Bay. It’s meant to provide local youth with the chance to get on a boat and see what fishing is all about.