Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 4:37 PM on Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bering Sea ice wreaks havoc on crab fisheries

The same Bering Sea ice conditions that created difficult conditions for a Russian fuel tanker and U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker carrying fuel to Nome also is causing problems for the Bering Sea crab fleet.

Public radio station KUCB in Unalaska is reporting that the sea ice was within 40 miles of the Pribilof Islands as of last weekend and still moving south.

Kathleen Cole, sea ice coordinator for the National Weather Service told the station that the ice came in early and quickly this year.

"It's been a fast onset of the ice in the Bering Sea," she said. "Probably two to three weeks ahead of what would be normal."

That caused an early closure of the St. Matthew's blue king crab season when the island was surrounded by sea ice, forcing fishermen to leave 20 percent of the quota in the water.

The blue crab season opened Oct. 15, and boats were trying to fill a 2.36 million pound quota, up substantially from the 1.6 million pound quota last season.

Like all Alaska king crab fisheries, St. Matthew's catches peaked in the mid-1980s, with a catch of 9.45 million pounds in 1984. Stocks crashed in the late 1990s, and the fishery was closed for 10 years beginning in 1999. It reopened with a quota of 1.16 million pounds in 2009 and has been building ever since.

The advancing ice edge also is causing problems for the opilio season for a number of reasons. Not only does it mean that a fair portion of the crab stocks are under the ice where boats are unable to reach them, but it also poses the danger of extensive gear loss if a skipper sets a string of gear too close to the ice edge and misjudges its movement.

In addition, since the advent of the crab rationalization program that includes processor quotas, nearly half of the crab caught must be delivered to processors operating above 56 degrees north latitude.

Because the opilio crab quota went up 64 percent this season, to 89 million pounds, that means 42 million pounds falls into that category, most of it destined for the Trident Seafoods plant on St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands. Those deliveries might not be possible until well into the season, possibly March or even April, which could wreak havoc on the fairly tight delivery schedules processors set for their boats.

Eighty-three boats are registered for the opilio season, and prices are expected to be around $2 per pound, down from last year's price of $2.41.

Coast Guard crews in Kodiak and Unalaska are taking steps to safeguard the crab fleet and other fishing vessels engaged in ground fisheries throughout the winter months this week.

With an increased number of vessels operating in the region, the Coast Guard has again forward deployed two MH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter crews from Air Station Kodiak to St. Paul to provide a more rapid response should the need arise. The forward operating location in St. Paul was fully staffed and operational Saturday.

"In order to respond to maritime life threatening emergencies where hours matter, forward deploying a helicopter to St. Paul during the winter crab fishing season has repeatedly proven to be a successful strategy to save lives," said Capt. Bark Lloyd, chief of response for the 17th Coast Guard District.

By forward deploying aircraft to St. Paul, Coast Guard air crews eliminate a six-hour transit from Kodiak plus an hour refueling stop from the time of initial response to any distressed mariners, critical hours in most situations.

Winter is the busiest time of year for fishing activity in the Bering Sea under some of the worst weather conditions. A high endurance cutter also will be in the region ready to respond with an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crew aboard.

Among a number of bills that were pre-filed ahead of the start of the Alaska legislative session is one that would require "legislative approval before the issuance of an authorization, license, permit, or approval of a plan of operation for a large-scale metallic sulfide mining operation that could affect water in or flowing into or over the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve."

Filed by Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, the bill amends Alaska Statute 38.05 to require the legislative approval for "certain mines," those that "extract metals, including gold and copper, from a sulfide-bearing rock and that would affect 640 or more acres of land," obviously aimed at the proposed Pebble Mine at the headwaters of much of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run.

French told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner that state law spells out the same legislative approval process for oil and gas projects that could affect the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.

He said that "strong precedent" should help advance what he considers an important piece of legislation.

The legislature last year authorized up to $750,000 for an independent study of the requirements related to large mine development in the state. Prior authorizations for studies related to Pebble stalled.

The legislative session began Tuesday.

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association has launched a new marketing website that touts the sustainability of the fishery, introduces a number of fishing families and their histories, includes some simple yet unique recipes, boasts about the nutrition provided by salmon, and has an image gallery showing the sights of the season.

One of the more absorbing features on the site is a rolling banner of boat names that, as with any fleet, captures diversity and humor of the participants, such as "Silver Spoon," "Insatiable," "Red Alert," "Silent Partner," "Whipping Post," and "# by #."

Check out the site at www.bristolbaysockeye.org.

Seawatch will attend the International Pacific Halibut Commission meetings in Anchorage next week. Check in at homernews.com/seawatch for updates throughout the week.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.