Unstable ice delays start of winter crabbing season
Due to the thin shore ice, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not opened the commercial crabbing season yet. Per the regulation adopted during last year’s Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting, the season is opened by an emergency order on or after January 15. However, warm temperatures and high winds have caused the ice to be unstable. Crabbers are at risk when they venture out on the ice, and even if they do manage to set their pots, it is likely that the pots will end up on the bottom of the ocean.
“Like last season, nearshore ice conditions are unstable and have been particularly poor in the Nome area where the majority of winter commercial fishing effort occurs,” an ADF&G press release reads. Last season, a lot of crab pots were lost because of the poor ice conditions. According to ADF&G Area Management Biologist Jim Menard, these pots stay at the bottom of the ocean, “ghost fishing.” When the pots are on the ocean floor still trapping animals, it becomes an environmental concern.
Assistant Area Management Biologist Scott Kent said that there are have been some subsistence crabbers, but not many. Kent compared his recent spotting of a subsistence crab fisherman heading out onto the ice with his pot to a “Bigfoot” sighting. Menard said that the department is waiting for the ocean conditions to improve. Regardless, they will likely open the commercial season within a week or two.
During the 2015 session, the Alaska Board of Fisheries adopted two new regulations regarding winter commercial red king crab fishing. The first is a new schedule for the season to be opened on or after January 15 and to close on April 30 at the latest. This change was made to prevent fishermen from setting pots too early and too late. The season used to be from November 15 until May 15.
The other regulation change is a quota for the amount of crab that can be caught during the winter season. Prior to the 2015 regulation, the guideline harvest rate, or GHL, was set only for the summer. There was no limit to the amount of crab caught during the winter season or to the number of crab pots that could be put out. The pounds of crab caught throughout the winter season were subtracted from the GHL to determine the summer limit.
According to Menard, the amount of crab caught during the winter season was generally pretty low, so the lack of a quota was a non-issue. However, fishermen began to catch more and more crab during the winter. Under the new regulation, eight percent of the GHL is allocated for winter crabbing. Eight percent works out to be 41,376 pounds. A quota of 475,824 pounds is set for the summer season.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, NPFMC for short, will determine the allowable biological catch (ABC) and over fishing limits (OFLs) in a meeting this month. OFL is the best estimate of the highest amount of stock that can be caught in one year without harm to the population. GHLs, are set based on legal male biomass estimates (LMB). GHLs must be set below the ABC, in order to keep the crab population stable.
ADF&G anticipates that the NPFMC will decide on an ABC of 570,000 pounds and an LMB of 4.3 million pounds. The commercial red king crab harvest rate will most likely be set at 517,200 pounds. The total estimated harvest, for both winter and summer, is expected to be between 6 to 8 percent below the ABC. This allows for a buffer of about 52,000 pounds, which accounts for subsistence harvest and incidental mortality.
For more information regarding crab regulations for the 2017 season and fish for the upcoming season, see the Board of Fisheries article in this Nome Nugget on page 7.