Red King Crab Quota Down 12% As Stock Trends 'Toward Fishery Closure Thresholds'

Oct 15, 2019

A fisherman readies crab pots in Unalaska. The Bristol Bay red king crab season opens Oct. 15.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Commercial fishing opens Tuesday, Oct. 15 for Bristol Bay red king crab.

This season, the declining population has forced managers to set the total allowable catch (TAC) at 3.8 million pounds.

That number is 12 percent lower than last year, as well as the lowest since the fishery was rationalized in 2005. Even if fishermen catch all of the TAC, it'll be the smallest harvest since 1982.

"This is not good news," said biologist Ben Daly of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We're trending toward fishery closure thresholds."

Daly said managers are seeing very few young crab come into the population as a result of extreme environmental conditions, including warming waters.

He called it a "discouraging" trend that could lead to a fishery shutdown soon.

"Going back to 2013, [the stock is] decreasing about 13 percent each year," he said. "So if you project the population forward, it suggests we may be interacting with this fishery on-off switch in the next two years."

Red king crab is also in danger of reaching regulatory "overfished" status, said Daly, which would trigger a federal rebuilding plan.

"The bad news is that king crab stocks are not very resilient," he said. "When they hit bottom, they don't bounce back very easy."

Other species are struggling, too. The Bering Sea tanner crab season has been canceled in both the eastern and western districts due to below-threshold estimates of mature males.

Also canceled are the St. Matthew Island blue king crab fishery, which has been declared "overfished," and the Pribilof Island blue and red king crab fisheries, which have fallen below federal minimums for two decades with little improvement. 

The only fishery to see a quota increase is snow crab. This season, the opilio TAC is 34 million pounds, up about 24 percent from last season.