Norton Sound Red King crab sells for record price

There is good news down at the docks.
“It’s off to a good start,” Jim Menard, state Dept. of Fish and Game fisheries biologist said of the winter commercial red king crab fishery Monday. “It’s looking really good; 18 crab fishers have delivered about 5,000 pounds already [to processors at Belmont Point].”
What’s more, Menard said, fishers are getting paid very well for their crab at a record price: $7.75 per pound.
Charlie Lean, longtime fisheries biologist waxed enthusiastic about the winter crabbing. “The crabs are nice sized, clean, not too many barnacles, that means they grade out very well; the price is good—over $7 a pound. Winter crab are never as big as summer crab, but they are in good shape.”
“The catch rate as of a week ago is about 10 percent caught for the winter, if you count the regular commercial fishery and the CDQ quotas combined,” he said.
At a nose count last week, forty-seven fishers have registered to participate in the 2017 Bering Sea winter through the ice red king crab fishery. Menard expects more persons to register. Thirty fishers registered to participate last year; 25 sold crab.
 The fishery started Feb. 7, a couple days after Super Bowl, and the crabbing super bowl will continue until fishers have brought in 8 percent of the Guideline Harvest Level, expected at about 40,000 pounds of crabs in the winter through the ice fishery.
Then the CDQ fishery will take 7.5 percent of the GHL. Last year was the first year for GHL in the winter fishery. The Board of Fisheries set the quota to redistribute and balance out the winter and summer crab fisheries. Also new is a cap of 20 pots per crabber and the requirement that identity tags be fastened directly to each pot.
Crabbers are saying the crabs look healthy. Only males may be taken, and to be legal, must be 4.75 inches wide. However, the Norton Sound Seafood processing plant wants to buy crabs measuring five inches. The little fellows under five inches but over 4.75 inches maybe kept for personal use, but must be recorded by the crabbers.

Take ‘em alive
Meanwhile, Lean has a warning for crabbers who work hard to prepare, mix bait and then work the crab fishery to make as much money as possible.
“One problem is there is dead loss, due to freezing. It’s been very cold out and the wind chill has been bad, so if the crab aren’t put immediately from the pot to the coolers with water, the crab get frostbitten and die later,” Lean said. “It’s the chill factor just like people, in fact, it is worse. Crab are on the verge of freezing all the time. They frostbite real quick—their face, their eyes, everything, so if they’re frostbitten, they’re toast. They don’t survive.”
“You can’t sell those, but you can minimize that loss,” said Lean. “You get your crab pot to the surface, dump them immediately, sort the small ones back into the hole, and put the big ones right into the water tank,” Lean continued. “Don’t let them sit around while you do other things.”
 NSSP—Norton Sound Seafood Products—processing plant at Belmont Point, does not want to buy dead crab.
 “Fishermen  bring the crab to the fish plant, and especially if you have a bad reputation, they segregate your crab out.  The next morning they count how many alive, how many dead; you get paid for the live ones; you don’t get paid for the dead ones, you can’t sell dead ones,” Lean said, continuing his lecture. “Dead crab are discarded, but they go on your fish ticket to report to state Fish and Game. That comes off the quota, but you don’t get paid for the dead ones.”
Norton Sound red king crab has been harvested in Norton Sound since the 1970s. Red king crab and purple orange starfish account for up to 95 percent of the saltwater animals in the Nome area, according to Justin Leon of ADF&G, Nome. Red king crab risk few predators in waters around Nome. In other waters they may feed Pacific cod, rock fish, other king crab, octopus, or yellowfin sole.
“A halibut might take a bite of one, but the red king crab is pretty much top dog in this area,” Leon said. Young ones float near the top, and may be at risk, but as adults drop down to the bottom, where they are usually safe. In the winter, the crabs come near shore, but in the summer they move out into deeper water.
Leon has conducted biological research in the Dutch Harbor and Nome areas. About a month ago he and his family returned to Nome. Leon had lived in Nome for a four-year stretch previously. Leon shared information about the red king crab fishery at Rotary Club on Feb. 3
Red king crab can move, less or more on a case by case basis, according to Leon, and some may move as far as several kilometers in four or five days. “They can really rocket,” he said.
Adult red king crab average around 2.5 to three pounds in Norton Sound. In Dutch Harbor area, where Leon performed research, red king crab weighed about twice as much, he said. 
ADF&G performs trawl surveys every three years, coming due this year. The last trawl survey showed the number of crabs remaining stable, according to Leon.
Leon warns that fishers should know the rules before putting in their pots, because violations can mean more than a slap on the wrist.
“Make sure you know the rules before you go out; some violations could mean fines, some could mean you are done for the year,” he said.
Lean explained the division of the harvest among the fishing groups. “All the harvest equals 100 percent of the Guideline Harvest Level. There’s the summer harvest, the Community Development Quota harvest, the winter harvest all combined—eight percent to winter open access fishery, 7.5 percent to CDQ fishery that can occur any time of year, so it’s up to the owner of the CDQ which is Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. and the Yukon Delta which are the CDQ groups concerned” Lean said. “The remainder is the summer open access fishery. So 84.5 percent of GHL goes to the summer open access fishery. Occasionally they go over. Sometimes they have gone around half a percent over in the recent past.”
There are safety buffers built in from federal regulations, so the state sets the GHL, but there is a federal Over Fishing Limit, the federal “do not exceed” level, so the managers really get their hands slapped if they exceed that, Lean explained. “They don’t hit that, but they do go over the GHL a bit sometimes. Think of the GHL as the center of the bull’s eye. You go a little over, you’re good, you go way over, you come up against the feds. They get really upset. Then it comes off the next years GHL, Lean concludes.
“There’s a pot limit and 8 percent set by Board of Fish, but 7.5 CDQ quota already set by North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. That’s the other part of the puzzle that people forget about. Open access fishery, when almost all taken right at 11th hour when the quota is going to be reached the next day or so, then CDQ quota will start to be allocated to local fishermen. NSSP is buying only from Norton Sound residents, not outsiders.
The CDQ quota will be definitely caught by local fishermen.

Community Development Quota?
Lean is on a roll, and continues. “The idea of the CDQ is to provide compensation and infrastructures for local fishermen. Most of the CDQ allocations are deep sea fish that live way out and have to be taken by big boats, so that mom and pop in Western Alaska communities couldn’t afford to be in that. By having a portion of that quota owned by local entities, that money can go to the local economy,” said Lean.  “It went to CDQ fisheries. When CDQ organizations were started, there were really strict rules about how that money could be allocated, but they’ve loosened up some.
That money subsidizes the local fish market, the local buyer, NSSP, others on the Yukon and Bristol Bay, and loans for fishing and community development quotas, energy assistance, funding wind farms, lots of things not necessarily fishery related anymore,” Lean explains. “NSEDC spends money around Norton Sound on youth basketball and all sorts of stuff that are quality of life issues more than they are fisheries related. The money benefits local folks and the local economy,” said Lean who has worked for NSEDC.
Rules and regulations are available at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game office in the State Building on Front Street.

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