Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 2:52 PM on Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bering Sea king crab stocks still on decline

By Cristy Fry

The Bering Sea crab fisheries received mixed news last week with the announcement of the 2011-2012 king crab and opilio crab quotas.

King crab stocks have continued their downward trend, and this season's Total Allowable Catch is down by 47 percent, set at 7.8 million pounds, with 10 percent going to Community Development Quota shareholders and the remainder to Individual Fishing Quota shareholders. The TAC last season was 14.8 million pounds.

Although prices are expected to be above last year's $7 per pound, the drop in quota at that price will mean a loss of around $50 million to fishermen and a $94 million loss in first wholesale revenue.

The opilio TAC surged in the other direction, seeing an increase of 64 percent, with the overall catch set at 88.9 million pounds, compared to 54.3 million pounds last season. As with king crab, 10 percent is allocated to CDQs and the remainder to IFQs.

Both seasons open Oct. 15, but virtually everyone in the fleet fishes their king crab IFQs first. Most boats wait until after the holidays to begin the long slog fishing opilios.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 81 vessels have pre-registered as of Sept. 29 for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery.

The bairdi tanner crab fishery is closed again this year, and is considered over-fished under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It was last fished in 2009-2010 with a 1.35 million pound quota.

No announcement has been made about the St. Matthews blue king crab quota, which last year was up 37 percent at 1.6 million pounds. However, the stock assessment showed a 7 percent increase in biomass.

The peak year for that fishery was 1983-1984, when the TAC was 9.4 million pounds. It was closed after an apparent stock collapse after the 1998-1999 season, and remained closed until 2009-2010.

At the other end of the state, a collaboration between Fish and Game and crab fishermen in Southeast has resulted in the king crab season there reopening after six years, during which fishermen contended that stocks were much higher than state assessments were showing.

Beginning in 2009, crabbers partnered with state shellfish biologists to catch, tag, and re-capture king crab in the area in an attempt to get a better handle on crab numbers. The results showed significantly higher stocks in some areas, with catches of mature crab 150 percent to 500 percent higher than the AFF&G survey numbers.

The season opens November 1 with a TAC of 201,000 pounds. There are about 60 permit holders, and a limit of 20 pots per boat.

The U.S. Coast Guard is conducting dockside exams in Western Alaska and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will deploy observers aboard participating crab vessels to safeguard the fishing fleet for the 2011 Bristol Bay red king crab season.

"These examinations ensure the vessel's safety equipment is in good working condition before fisherman take to the water," said Ken Lawrenson, the 17th District commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator. "Fishermen will be able to correct any deficiencies before the season begins. We also encourage them to attend the Alaska Marine Safety Education Association training at the community pool and local harbor in Unalaska and Kodiak. Topics will include liferaft, survival suit and flare use training."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game deploys observers aboard approximately 20 percent of the fleet for the duration of their fishing operations. A current Coast Guard dockside examination decal is required to carry an observer. Fishermen who do not have a valid decal for this season can call the Coast Guard 17th District fishing vessel safety coordinator at 1-800-478-7369 or their local Coast Guard marine safety office to schedule an exam.

In anticipation of the increased number of vessels operating in the region, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crews have been forward deployed to Cold Bay. This allows aircrews to provide a more rapid response should the need arise. A Coast Guard high-endurance cutter will also be on patrol in the Bering Sea during the majority of the season.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced she has selected Stefanie Moreland to be her legislative aide covering fisheries issues and arctic matters, replacing Arne Fuglvog who recently pleaded guilty to fisheries violations

"Alaska's fisheries are one of our largest economic drivers — employing more people in Alaska than the oil and gas and mining industries combined — so Alaska needs a smart, strong advocate," Murkowski said. "Stefanie's expertise and Alaska focus will be a great addition to my staff."

An Alaskan for over a decade, Moreland joins Sen. Murkowski's team from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, where she most recently served as the federal fisheries coordinator, extended jurisdiction program manager and economist. Prior to that, she worked for the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

She holds a bachelor's degree from University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a master's in resource and applied economics from University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Moreland will join the senator's Washington, D.C., office in early November.