While crab fishing is underway in the Bering Sea, the quota for red king crab is down significantly.
At 4.3 million pounds, the total allowable catch is 35 percent lower than last season's TAC, which was already the lowest since 1996.
Biologists expected the annual trawl survey to show a decline in the red crab population, but the drop was even greater than anticipated.
"It's hard to determine exactly what the trigger — or combination of triggers — is," said Miranda Westphal of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We believe it's probably a combination of environmental factors. There are bycatch issues. It's hard to tell exactly what the threshold is because we can't go out, see them, and look at their environment since they're at the bottom of Bristol Bay."
While it's difficult to design studies that pinpoint specific causes, scientists said unusual features of the Bering Sea may be acting as stressors — warm water, for example.
"Right now, we know the Bering Sea's been very warm for a couple years," said Westphal. "This year, it's going to be another warm year. The environmental scientists are letting us know that there's not a cold pool. Generally, there's a cold pool that comes down and helps to structure the different populations of crab and groundfish. That's not there this year. It's possible the crab have moved or they can't adapt to environmental stressors."
The tanner crab population is also struggling.
Three years ago, the fishery didn't open due to low population. Last year, the fishery's west side opened, while the east side remained closed. The same will happen this year with a similar TAC — 2.4 million pounds for the west side only.
"We're seeing a lot of older crab," said Westphal. "Not a lot of new shell biomass in the system right now. Bt there is a pulse of really small juveniles that'll be coming into the fishery in about five years, so we've got some hope coming."
The bright spot this season is snow crab. The opilio quota of 27.5 million pounds is way from last year's 18.9 million.
"We've got a large recruitment pulse that's just started to come into the fishery," said Westphal. "We're expecting really good news for the next few years."
All three Bering Sea crab fisheries open Oct. 15. Bristol Bay red king crab will remain open until Jan. 15, while Bering Sea snow crab runs through May and Bering Sea tanner crab lasts through March.
Meanwhile, managers have continued long-term closures for Pribilof Island red and blue king crab, which remain at low abundance levels.
They've also canceled the blue king crab fishery around St. Matthew Island. Despite not opening the last few seasons, Westphal said the stock has been classified as "overfished" — in part, due to bycatch in groundfish fisheries.
Westphal said managers will start work on a rebuilding plan for the population in the next year or so. In the meantime, they're asking fishermen to be cautious and avoid blue king crab while fishing around St. Matthew Island.
KUCB's Laura Kraegel contributed to this story. Here's a link to KDLG's original story.