Story last updated at 12:34 p.m. Thursday, September 19, 2002

Bering Sea crabbers face grim 'opie' season


Sepp Jannotta
OPILIO CRAB STOCKS in the Bering Sea have not rebounded, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game trawl survey data. According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the result will be one of the lowest guideline harvest levels (GHL) on record, just 25.6 million pounds for the 2003 season. The Community Development Quota fishery will account for almost 2 million pounds of that amount. The total mature biomass of male and female opilio crab has fallen by 45 percent from 2001 levels, according to Fish and Game estimates. Males have declined by 26 percent and females have declined by 66 percent. The 2002 total mature biomass is thought to be 313.3 million pounds, making it the fourth-lowest on record. If that number falls below 230.4 the fishery will close. The 2001 GHL was set at 25.3 million pounds for the general fishery and the harvested total was 23.4 million pounds. The 2000 fishery had a GHL of 26.4 million pounds, and 30.8 million pounds were harvested. Fish and Game biologists say that 1999's harvest of 184.5 million pounds was closer to historical averages. "The last four years were well below the historical average," said Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Area Management Biologist Forrest R. Bowers. "The snow crab stock experienced a period of very poor recruitment during the late 1990s. Crabs in all sizes declined significantly. We started to see some improved recruitment during the 2000 and 2001 surveys, but we have not seen a major recovery yet." Data gives managers little hope that the GHL will increase in the near future. In 2002, the Board of Fish set regulations that would implement a reduced pot limit and a GHL under 25 million pounds. When the scheduled Jan. 15 opening for the 2003 season rolls around, the Bering Sea pot limit will be 100 pots for vessels less than 125 feet in length and 120 pots for vessels over 125 feet in length.

FISH AND GAME has given a positive outlook to the health of the Aleutian Islands brown king crab fishery, which opened last month. The Dutch Harbor Fisherman reported that while other crab stocks have continued to fluctuate, the brown king crab fishery has been the model of consistency. A fleet of 22 boats hauled in nearly a million pounds of crab in the first week and a half of the fishery. With a GHL of 3 million pounds in the eastern district and 2.7 million pounds in the western district, crabbers are working with harvest numbers that have remained relatively unchanged over the past decade. The east section closed on Sept. 7 with an approximate total of 2.8 million pounds harvested, while the west remains open with approximately 2.1 million pounds hauled in. The fishermen have become more efficient at finding brown kings, wrapping up the 2001 fishery in a record time of less that a month. Fish and Game biologist Forrest R. Bowers said that preliminary observations indicate that the fishery shows little sign of slumping.

AN ENVIRONMENTAL LAWSUIT attempting to force the federal government to comply with the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has drawn sharp reaction from politicians and fishermen across Alaska. Gubernatorial candidate Fran Ulmer is the latest major political figure to weigh in on the issue. But where her opponent, Republican Frank Murkowski, chose to blast the environmental organizations which filed the lawsuit, Ulmer took a different tack. Ulmer sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans stating that a failure to comply with the marine mammal protection statutes could jeopardize the livelihoods of Alaska's fishermen. "Alaska fishermen face the specter of a potential court order interrupting their employment because of your department's failure to fulfill the federal government's obligations," Ulmer said in the letter to Evans. "I am writing to ask that your department eliminate the basis for this lawsuit by taking immediate action to fulfill your obligations under this act." The court action seeks to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to adhere to the time tables and standards that were set in 1994 when Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act to require more aggressive steps to protect marine mammals from being killed in commercial fishing gear. The environmental groups, which include Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, contend that the NMFS failed to implement 'Take Reduction Plans' intended to safeguard species it has already identified as at risk from mortality in fishing gear. Ulmer also requested Governor Tony Knowles to direct the Alaska Department of Law to "analyze how the state can best defend our commercial fisheries" against the potential impacts of the lawsuit. The litigation cites several commercial fisheries in Alaska that could be targeted. "Alaska fishermen agreed to participate in an intrusive observer program in recognition that reliable data is necessary to achieve the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act," Ulmer said. "Those observer programs have shown that despite large populations of marine mammals, relatively few have interactions with commercial fishing operations. The fishermen have done their part, now the federal government must do its part." For his part, Murkowski labeled the lawsuit as a direct attack on Alaska's fishing industry.

DIPAC CHUMS helped the Southeast hatchery recover its costs, according to a report in the Juneau Empire. The Douglas Island Pink and Chum hatchery had a disappointing sockeye salmon return, making the cost-recovery prospects appear grim early on. But chum returns exceeded all expectations and the hatchery was able to make up for the short sockeye return. "It's been kind of mixed results this year," said Rick Focht, DIPAC's director of research and evaluation. The relatively new sockeye program was expected to produce a return of almost 300,000 fish this season, but fewer than half of that actually made it back to the Gastineau Channel area. The common property fleet harvested 78,000 sockeyes, while the hatchery caught about 34,000 for its cost-recovery program. On the other hand, chums returned to the hatchery in twice the numbers expected, with about 1.1 million chums harvested for cost recovery.

HALIBUT LANDINGS FOR THE HOMER fleet are nearing the 12 million-pound mark, though the effort has been slowing down. Prices have continued their season-long upward trend. Fishermen are getting close to $3 a pound.