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Crab pots ‘absolutely stuffed’ as Dungeness fishery breaks records

Dungeness crab that were caught in the Bering Sea by a local Unalaska fisherman.
Sofia Stuart-Rasi
Dungeness crab that were caught in the Bering Sea by a local Unalaska fisherman.

While many Bering Sea crab populations find themselves in freefall, Dungeness crab is breaking records in regions that used to hardly see them.

The North Peninsula District in the eastern Bering Sea opened as a commercial Dungeness fishery in the early ‘90s. In those early days, it was common for just one or two boats to fish there — many seasons, there were none.

The numbers increased modestly over the ensuing decades — but that growth has recently become exponential.

“The pots that we're seeing coming out of this fishery are absolutely stuffed with crab,” said Ethan Nichols, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Like, you don't even know how many crabs can fit in a pot.”

Nichols is ADF&G’s assistant area manager for groundfish and shellfish in Dutch Harbor. He said the fishery boomed last year and became the largest Dungeness crab fishery in Alaska — bringing in 35% of the state’s total Dungeness landings.

So why are populations of this one particular species increasing, while red king crab and snow crab are decreasing?

The answer may be the same for both questions: climate change.

“We think it's likely that the recent warming conditions in the Bering Sea are creating conditions more favorable for Dungeness crab,” Nichols said.

The same warming trend that is likely pushing king crab farther north could be bringing Dungeness crab to the eastern Bering Sea. But Nichols said the trend is too new to have any definitive answer.

“I'm hoping that as we have more years of consistent harvest in the fishery, we’ll have a better idea of the full distribution of crab in the area,” he said. “And if this is just a fluke for a couple of seasons, or if this can be a more consistently large Dungeness fishery.”

What is certain is that crabbers have taken notice. Last year, the fleet harvested 3 million pounds of Dungeness crab, breaking the highest record in the district.

That boom has some people concerned. In January, an Unalaska fisherman introduced an emergency proposal to ADF&G, warning that the sudden increase in vessel participation could lead to over-harvesting.

“The person who put this in was worried about some really big boats coming out from down south with like 3,000 pots apiece,” Nichols said.

In response, the department set a Dungeness pot limit — the first time they had ever done so in the district. The regulation limits pots to 500 or 750 per vessel, depending on how many boats have registered. This year, it's 500.

The department said this season is starting slower than last year, with around 33,000 pounds of Dungeness crab caught since opening May 1.

The fishery will remain open until October 18, or until pot limits are met.

Sofia was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She’s reported around the U.S. for local public radio stations, NPR and National Native News. Sofia has a Master of Arts in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism from the University of Montana, a graduate certificate in Documentary Studies from the Salt Institute and a Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Colorado Boulder. In between her studies, Sofia was a ski bum in Telluride, Colorado for a few years.
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