Golden king crab season opens Monday, but fishermen in the western Aleutians are facing a deep cut to their usual quota.
Driven by concern for the crab population, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has reduced their total allowable catch (TAC) by a quarter.
"There's a 25 percent reduction in the TAC for the western stock this year based on declines in several stock abundance indicators," said Ethan Nichols, the assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game. "We're not exactly sure what's going on, but for the last two seasons, the TAC has not been achieved."
In other words, commercial crabbers have fallen short of the target harvest from Atka west.
Nichols couldn't say how far they've missed the mark. That data is confidential because only two vessels fish the western stock of golden king crab. He also couldn't say why Fish and Game cut the quota by 25 percent, instead of 5 or 15, for instance.
But Nichols did say why the shortfall is so worrisome: It comes after a decade of stable harvests, and it's been coupled with lower catch per unit effort and fewer female crabs.
"It is a big deal," he said. "We've had a lot of concern from the golden king crab industry. But based on those stock abundance indicators, we are taking a conservative approach."
But that's only in the western Aleutians.
Nichols said the eastern fishery has performed above average for the past two seasons. So while the western quota will drop from nearly 3 million pounds to just 2.2 million, the eastern TAC will stay consistent this year at 3.3 million pounds.
"We're not completely sure why things seems to be going better in the east as opposed to the west," he said.
Fish and Game will monitor the golden king crab fishery this season to see if the reduction helps the western stock. The fishery closes at the end of April for both the eastern and western Aleutians.