Next fall, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery could face its first closure in 25 years.
This season, the 54-vessel fleet has reported slow, spotty fishing, and the stock continues to show signs of decline. The current quota — 3.8 million pounds — is the lowest since the fishery was rationalized in 2005.
"A lot of boats had to scratch their way through the season," said Ethan Nichols, assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "There were only one to two large schools of legal males that were reported to us from captains out on the grounds. So the season was definitely a bit of a grind."
With 99 percent of the harvest landed, Nichols said the average number of crab caught in each pot is down five from last season, marking the lowest catch per unit effort since rationalization.
The average crab weight, however, continues to go up.
"Last year, it was 7.1 pounds. Right now, we have an average weight of 7.14 pounds," said Nichols. "It's the highest average weight in the history of the fishery."
Catching big crab is good for fishermen in the short term, but it bodes poorly for the future. According to Area Management Biologist Miranda Westphal, it's a sign the stock is aging, with very few young crab coming in.
"We've been seeing the same group of large legal males," she said. "Not a lot of recruits coming into the fishery, and not a lot of recruits to the stock in general."
That fishery data echoes the trend seen in annual stock surveys, which is likely a result of warming water temperatures and other environmental stressors.
Westphal said the decline could force a fishery closure soon.
"We've been on a downward trend for quite a while now," she said. "We would expect that trend to continue, especially with the extreme environmental conditions. So we'd expect probably to have a closure next year or the following season."
The last time there was no red king crab season was in 1994. The closure of the multimillion-dollar fishery had significant financial impacts for the fleet, processors, and port communities like Unalaska. Westphal said biologists will know more after the upcoming summer trawl survey.
For now, one more boat is expected to harvest the remaining red king crab quota in January, while the rest of the fleet gears up for snow crab season in the Bering Sea.
The opilio quota is up 23 percent this winter, thanks to a strong pulse of young crab that's expected to provide good fishing for a few seasons. After that, there's not much evidence of juveniles coming into the stock, and its long-term prospects look dicey.
The Bering Sea tanner crab population is also struggling. This winter, bairdi fishing is closed in both the eastern and western districts due to low abundance of males.