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Snow crab harvest limit slashed

Population appears to have crashed as Bering Sea warms by Jim Kordsmeier | October 12, 2021 at 1:54 a.m.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game set the 2022 snow crab harvest at the lowest level in more than 40 years, a move to protect populations that appear to have crashed during a period of higher temperatures in the Bering Sea.

The snow crab is a mainstay of the Alaska crab boat fleet -- much of it based in Washington -- and the 2021-22 catch limit of 5.6 million pounds, announced Friday, is down 88% from the previous season.

The 2021 fall harvest of Bristol Bay red king crab, another important source of revenue for that fleet, was canceled this year because of too few females. The combined impacts of the closure and snow crab cutbacks are a big financial hit to crabbers who in past years have grossed more than $200 million from the two harvests.

At a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council last week, crabbers called for additional restrictions in other harvests.

"I implore you to do whatever is necessary to keep the crab fisheries sustainable," said Jenny Gore Dwyer, whose family owns three North Pacific crab boats, in Wednesday testimony before the council. "First and foremost, we are a business based on fishing crabs in the Bering Sea ... But for us, it's not just a business, it's a way of life."

Scientists who study the snow crab are scrambling to understand what happened to them in the aftermath of dire summer survey results that included a more than 99% drop in immature females compared with those found three years earlier, as well as substantial drops in mature males and females.

The changes in the Bering Sea include dramatic declines in winter ice cover in 2018 and 2019, which resulted in reduced size of a cold pool on the bottom favored by young crab.

The causes of the population decline probably include increased predation of the young snow crab by cod, which typically stay out of the cold pool, as well as overall stress caused by the higher temperatures, according to federal and Alaska scientists who spoke during the virtual council meeting. Researchers also have tracked increased disease.

As the sea bottom warmed, snow crab also appear to have moved much farther northwest and to deeper waters than in years past. But scientiststestified that the evidence indicates a big downturn in the population, not just a migration out of the survey zone.

"We really do think that ... some sort of mortality event did occur," said Katie Palof, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who advises the North Pacific council about crab.

Formed by a landmark 1976 federal law that extended U.S. control over the 200-mile fishery zone off the nation's coasts, the council -- composed of state, industry and federal officials -- develops harvest plans in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

In a Wednesday vote, the council approved a maximum allowable snow crab harvest of 12.4 million pounds for 2021-22.

Alaska, which sets the final quota, opted for a considerably lower 5.6 million pounds. Also on Friday, the state set a quota of 1.10 million pounds for Bering Sea bairdi crab, down 53% from the previous season.

The crab and fish harvests in the Bering Sea collectively rank as the most valuable fisheries in North America, and the federal council, when it resumes meeting this week, is expected to consider additional restrictions in some other harvests because of the low number of snow and king crab.

The accidental, or bycatch, of crab by other fleets has come under increased scrutiny, although biologists at the council meeting did not find that was a big contributor to the crabs' decline.

The biggest bycatch of red king crab has come from crews that harvest fish with steel, baited traps set along the sea bottom. A significant portion of these fishers also are crabbers.

Pot fishers must throw back all these red king crab, but biologists estimate only half survive.

Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers association, said the bycatch is concerning, but noted that pot fishers have been testing promising new gear that could reduce bycatch.

Print Headline: Snow crab harvest limit slashed

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