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Bristol Bay red king crab season brings small but welcome harvest amid lull in Alaska’s crab fisheries

Maggie Nelson
Thirty-one vessels participated in the fishery this year. That’s down from the five-year average of 56 boats. That drop is mainly due to this year’s low total catch, Nichols said.

The majority of Alaska’s Bristol Bay commercial red king crab have been caught for the season.

This year’s quota was rather low, coming in at about 2.1 million pounds for the entire fleet. To compare, that’s less than half the total allowable catch, or TAC, for the 2018/2019 season.

Ethan Nichols is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s area management biologist for groundfish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands region. He said even just a couple million pounds was a welcome amount for harvesters during historic lows in the state’s commercial crab industry.

“The red king crab and tanner fisheries are obviously small this year,” he said. “But I think they're really important for helping the industry stay afloat through these years where we haven't had a snow crab fishery, which is really the bread and butter for the crab fleet in the Bering Sea.”

The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery had been closed for two years due to low stocks before reopening for this year’s three-month season. That closure coincided with the surprising crash of Alaska’s snow crab. Fish and Game shut down the snow crab fishery for the first time in its history last year, and it remains closed after regulators declared the stocks “overfished.”

State managers reopened red king crab in October, after summer trawl survey data showed higher numbers of mature females within the population.

Nichols said most of the crab have now been caught.

We saw our first delivery on Oct. 19 and our last delivery of the season was Nov. 18,” he said. “As of right now, 99.7% of the total allowable catch is harvested, so that is 2,144,108 pounds.”

Thirty-one vessels participated in the fishery this year. That’s down from the five-year average of 56 boats. That drop is mainly due to this year’s low total catch, Nichols said — operation costs weren’t worth such small amounts of quota for some vessels.

Although there hasn’t been a delivery since mid-November, harvesters have until Jan. 15 to catch their quota, when the season officially ends.

There are no boats currently registered in the fishery, but Nichols said it’s still possible the small amount of remaining quota could be harvested, especially because processors are paying about $8 per pound for the massive crab. That’s a dollar less than the last time king crab was harvested, but he said this year, there’s talk amongst the fleet that that price could shoot up closer to $15 with what’s known as retros — those increase the final payment to fishermen after they sell their crab to processors.

With the prices this season that's quite a bit — the remaining pounds have a lot of value,” Nichols said.

He said it comes down to how the final — roughly 5,800 — pounds are split up, and if those could be consolidated to one or two vessels.

Overall, Nichols said fishing was pretty average this season.

“It varied a lot amongst the fleet, but I got a lot of positive feedback from captains,” he said. “They were seeing good numbers in their pots and a good mix of smaller males, and also females, they say, were working further to the East.”

The average number of legal male crab per pot was about 20 this year. That’s down slightly from the 2019 average of 21. The average weight was about 6.7 pounds this season. The five-year average was just barely higher at 6.8 lbs.

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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