Golden king crab season opens Wednesday in the Aleutian Islands.
And for the first time in its 22-year history, the commercial fishery isn't capped by a rigid quota.
"It's really exciting this year," said biologist Miranda Westphal of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "It was great to have some freedom in setting limits in this fishery."
Brown crab prefer the deep, current-heavy waters of island passes, so it's basically impossible to count them. In fact, Westphal said this is the region's only large rationalized crab fishery without a survey.
In the past, that's meant scientists couldn't adjust the annual harvest like they do for other species. Instead, state regulations maintained a strict limit to protect the hard-to-monitor stock.
"If we saw the performance of the fishery was declining or we had some information to believe that the stock was down, we could lower the quota," said Westphal. "But we had no freedom to increase it."
That's changing now that biologists and crabbers have agreed on a method to assess the stock.
It's not a preseason trawl survey, like the one conducted for other types of crab. It's a pilot model that estimates population based on data collected during the last fishing season.
"This stock assessment model is unique in that it's based off fishing information," said Westphal. "It's a more comprehensive look at observer data, and it can forecast. So now we can see not only what happened, but where that stock is predicted to go."
Because that forecast indicates a surplus of golden crab, biologists have raised the fishery's quotas.
East of Atka, fishermen can harvest 3.9 million pounds. To the west, they can take 2.5 million. Those numbers represent 18- and 11-percent increases over last season.
"We believe there's more of a surplus in the east," said Westphal. "We're a little surer about the east just because it's so much closer and it's such a smaller area, so we get a lot more information on it. But I think both stocks are looking well."
Five boats will fish for brown crab this season, which closes by regulation on April 30, 2019.
If the new assessment model is successful, the Alaska Board of Fisheries can vote to adopt it permanently next year.