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U.S. Commerce Secretary approves new disasters for crab fisheries in Alaska

Crew from the Silver Spray empty snow crab pots while fishing in the Bering Sea.
Bill Prout
Crew from the Silver Spray empty snow crab pots while fishing in the Bering Sea.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce has approved six fishery disaster designations for the state of Alaska – that includes the Yukon Kuskokwim and Chignik salmon fisheries for last year. Crabbers will also see relief for this year’s Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab fisheries. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced this fall that both fisheries would remain closed for the season due to low population numbers.

Crew from the Silver Spray empty snow crab pots while fishing in the Bering Sea. (Courtesy of Bill Prout)

Alaska’s congressional delegation applauded the disaster approvals in a joint statement Friday.

Gabriel Prout is a Bering Sea crab fisherman from Kodiak. He owns the F/V Silver Spray with his family. He says there’s still uncertainty in the fleet about the road ahead, but Friday’s announcement is a big step forward.

“Definitely brings a little bit of some type of psychological relief that they’re working and taking this disaster seriously and what the fishermen are going through,” said Prout.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen said in an email that the trade group “looks forward to Congress acting swiftly to appropriate the necessary funds to help America’s fishermen and coastal communities weather these crises and to fund research to help avoid them in the future.”

Researchers say they aren’t certain what caused the snow crab’s population collapse, which led to the fishery’s closure, but they believe climate change was a factor. Changing ocean conditions due to climate change are also likely contributing to salmon declines in parts of western Alaska.

Congress still needs to allocate funding for each disaster designation, and fishermen have to apply for financial relief. The process often takes years to get money to skippers and their crews.

The U.S. Secretary of Commerce issued determinations that fisheries disasters occurred in:

  • 2021/2022 Alaska Bristol Bay Red King Crab and Bering Sea Snow Crab Fisheries
  • 2021 Alaska Kuskokwim River Salmon and Norton Sound Chum and Coho Salmon Fisheries
  • 2021 Chignik Salmon Fisheries
  • 2020 Copper River/Prince William Sound Coho and Pink Salmon Fisheries
  • 2020/2021 Alaska Norton Sound Red King Crab Fisheries
  • 2022/2023 Alaska Bristol Bay Red King Crab and Bering Sea Snow Crab Fisheries
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  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.