As government shutdown looms, Bristol Bay red king crab fishery faces uncertainty
A federal government shutdown likely won’t affect the start of a Bristol Bay red king crab season, according to fisheries officials.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in early October to discuss opening the crab fishery, which has been closed since 2021. The federal government shutdown, which could start Sunday, wouldn’t stop the regional council from meeting, but it could affect whether or not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can distribute IFQ or Individual Fishing Quota, following the Council’s recommendation.
While a shutdown has never delayed the opening of the fishery, it has pushed back NOAA’s ability to issue that quota.
Still, Gretchen Harrington, assistant regional administrator with NOAA’s Sustainable Fisheries Division, said that staff are working to make sure they can administer quota even if there is a shutdown.
“We don't anticipate a delay in issuing IFQ for the [Bristol Bay red king crab] fishery, however there is a lot of uncertainty with any government shutdown,” Harrington told KUCB in an email.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in Alaska, crabbers bore the brunt of the last government shutdown.
“They couldn't get the allocations for crab, so they couldn't get out in the water,” Murkowski said. “And they missed weeks of a valuable harvest where their boats were tied up.”
In North America, red king crab are found in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska and south to Canada. Red kings are the largest commercially harvested crab and are mainly caught in Bristol Bay.
The lucrative Bristol Bay fishery was made internationally famous by the popular reality TV show “Deadliest Catch.” In 2020, Alaska’s king crab commercial landings totaled roughly eight million pounds and were valued at more than $72 million, according to NOAA.
The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been closed since 2021 due to low numbers of mature females in crab stocks — marking the first closure for the fishery in 25 years. But this year, numbers are looking better. The population is above federal parameters for closure, and officials say the species isn’t overfished or approaching that status.
Meanwhile, fisheries specialists say surveys show that snow crab populations remain poor — with both female and male counts at all-time lows. Bering Sea snow crab closed for the first time in the fishery’s history last year.
Following the recent crash within the commercial crab industry, a delay in the king crab fishery could be detrimental to some fishermen, even if the total allowable catch for king crab is low. In 2022, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola requested nearly $290 million from the federal government for fishermen impacted by the crab closures.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Scientific and Statistical Committee will set the Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) on Oct. 6. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will then decide whether or not to open the fishery and set the total catch limits.
If opened, the Bristol Bay red king crab season is set to start Oct. 15.
CORRECTION: This story originally reported that the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery began in 1966, however, United States fishermen harvested crab in the region prior to this. Accurate reporting of harvest in the domestic Bristol Bay red king crab fishery began in 1966.