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Bristol Bay red king crab fishery could return after two years on ice

Bri Dwyer
Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers
If opened, Bristol Bay red king crab is set to start Oct. 15.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is set to decide Friday whether or not to reopen the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which has been closed since 2021.

Their decision will be based on recommendations from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is meeting through Oct. 11 in Anchorage.

During the Council’s meeting Tuesday, the Crab Plan Team presented data and analysis on Bristol Bay crab stocks from the summer trawl survey to the Scientific and Statistical Committee.

Mike Litzow is a co-chair for the team and the shellfish assessment program manager and director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Kodiak Lab.

In an interview with KUCB, Litzow said while male and female crab are still at historic lows, the fishery is not at or approaching an “overfished” status.

It's in the safe space in terms of the federal control rules,” Litzow said. “There's still continuing concern about that fishery because we're still not seeing a lot of recruitment.”

But according to Litzow, the stocks are looking better than they were the past couple of years, especially in terms of the number of mature females.

In North America, red king crab are found in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, in 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,” and according to NOAA, the Bristol Bay stock is considered the second largest king crab population in the world. But a recent drop in numbers prompted regulators to close the fishery in 2021, marking the first Bristol Bay red king crab closure in roughly 25 years.

“That Bristol Bay red king crab stock has just not had any large recruitment event — any year where we're seeing a lot of young crab coming into the survey — for 15 years or so,” Litzow said. “We’re just seeing a trickle of young animals come in.”

He said that drop in recruitment numbers is a complex problem, but greater abundance of pacific cod — which sometimes feed on red kings — could be a cause for low recruitment, like it has been for snow crab, which closed for the first time in the fishery’s history last year. There’s a few other hypotheses too, he said.

“Bottom temperatures seem to be a problem — that's also something that we've seen for snow crab,” Litzow said. “Also, there are simultaneous declines in other benthic invertebrates on the survey — that suggests that food availability might be an issue for young crab. And finally, there is some evidence that the decline in recruitment tracks the decline in pH in bottom waters in Bristol Bay.”

The Crab Plan Team has suggested an overfishing limit of 4.42 thousand tons — that’s the maximum amount of crab stock that can be caught in a year without resulting in overfishing. They set a limit of 3.54 thousand tons for the Acceptable Biological Catch, which is a smaller catch amount that accounts for scientific uncertainty and is set to prevent overfishing.

On Friday, the Council will make a recommendation to the Alaska Department Fish and Game based on those numbers. ADF&G will then set the total allowable catch, or TAC. That number can’t exceed the Acceptable Biological Catch set by the Council.

Litzow said even though surveys show that the Bristol Bay red king crab stock is above mature female thresholds for fishing, it’s still a small population.

“I think it's certainly reasonable to be cautious in this situation,” Litzow said. “So my educated guess is that if there's a fishery, it's not going to be a large one. If there's a TAC, it's going to be a small TAC.”

The Council and the Scientific and Statistical Committee are scheduled to set the Acceptable Biological Catch Friday. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will then decide whether or not to open the fishery and set the TAC.

If opened, Bristol Bay red king crab is set to start Oct. 15.

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.
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