To save the stock, NSEDC forgoes buying red king crab in 2020
The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation’s Board of Directors voted Feb. 6 to not buy red king crab for both the winter and summer seasons of 2020. The board also voted to urge the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife to close the fishery to protect the resource from further decline. Biologists who testified during last week’s NSEDC board meeting in Nome cited a high percentage of mature females with partial egg clusters or none at all, suggesting a reproductive failure due to a lack of mature males.
“There have been two trawl surveys, a federal and a state one,” said Charlie Lean. “And those in the commercial fisheries last summer and last winter all agree that there are very few legal size crab. Furthermore the evidence is the female king crab are having a difficult time finding male king crab and that’s impacting reproduction.”
Lean is Northern Norton Sound ADF&G Advisory Committee Chair and has a lifetime of fisheries experience. “If we’re just saying ‘low abundance’ we could reduce fishing and everybody would have to tighten their belt but not catastrophically. But when you start to impact the reproductive capacity of any population you’re going to have to look really long and hard at whether you want to try and make it this year at the expense of the next decade. Or do you want to bite the bullet now and try to reduce the future impact. I’m suggesting now is the time to act,” Lean said.
Two fishermen who commercially harvest crab testified to the board that closing the season would make things difficult for fishermen. “I’m concerned about the closure of the summer fishery. We’ve put money into some of the poorest communities in the region.” said Eric Osborne. He said the concentration of crab has moved out toward deeper, cooler, saltier water and he fears other boats will travel north to fish. “It would be nice to have a buying station, it would be nice to be able to buy ice.” He asked the board to table this motion. “It’s natural for stocks to fluctuate.”
Agreeing with Osborne was Frank McFarland. “Make sure about the decisions you make,” he said. “Stakeholders are the ones who need to be a part of the decision making. It has a direct effect on people’s livelihood. People can go through real hardship because of the crab.”
How much does the lack of egg clusters with the females caught in the trawl survey really tell about the status of the fishery?
“When you start to see a spike in the percentage of mature females, which are barren or only have partial clusters it’s an index of a failure in male reproductive potential,” said Scott Kent, Director of NSEDC’s Norton Sound Fisheries Research and Development Department. “Typically, it’s just five to eight percent barren every year. And some of those females may not be fully mature. And then there are some that are mature but don’t get fertilized. The observer data from the NSEDC observer program shows based on the samples collected there’s 47 percent barren. That’s astronomically high. Even if there’s some error around that estimate.”
What could cause the absence of males to fertilize the females? “We don’t really know,” said Kent. “We know there’s one cohort, one class of males we’ve been fishing on exclusively now for the last five or six years. And there’s not been another cohort of significant size behind them. We’ve been harvesting this cohort for a while. It could be our policy on determining quota and there are environmental effects. There could be fish predation going on by Pacific cod and other species. It could be our harvest policy and the environment acting together. We have plenty of information to do something now. There are some big warning signs, indicators.”
Will one year be enough for the crab stocks to recover? Charlie Lean doesn’t think so. “No, one year will not be enough. The population is in decline,” said Lean. “The model they’re using for management says it’s flat line stable at a low point. I disagree. Especially if we fish, that added mortality will cause the population to decline even farther. And so were just going to take out all the older males which are most effective at mating and that could be catastrophic,” Lean said. He added that people are used to dealing with salmon and other fish that are better at re-colonizing when they’re almost wiped out. “So with these king crab when you knock them down too far you get below what’s called the escape threshold and some alternative moves in. Something that eats the same stuff, utilizes the same habitat, comes in and out competes the what’s left of that stock,” Lean said. This occurred in the 1990 time frame in the Gulf of Alaska. Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Cook Inlet Alaska Peninsula king crab fisheries all were big drivers for the economy of Alaska. They no longer exist and they have not rebounded in 30 years, said Lean. “We don’t want to go there and this is a possibility. So we need to stop it. I’m not suggesting a subsistence close. I don’t think the subsistence harvest is significant. And there are laws both federal and state that say that subsistence has priority. So unfortunately the commercial fishermen are the ones who are going to bear the burden,” Lean said.
Justin Noffsker is Sales and Project Analyst at Norton Sound Seafoods. He said, “It’s one percent of the state’s fishery by volume but twelve percent of the value. Red king crab is very valuable and easy to sell. But the crab isn’t there so it doesn’t matter whether it’s open. So the actual true effect is not going to be that great. Hopefully people will go after the other fisheries that we continue to support,” Noffsker said.