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Winter Commercial Crabbing To Begin This Month, Two Regional Bodies Advocate to Close Fishery

Nome’s Fish & Game office has announced the Norton Sound red king crab commercial fishery will be open in two weeks, without a registered buyer. In spite of that announcement, both the would-be buyer – Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC), and now the region’s advisory committee are urging the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to close the crab fishery.

“Our petition, and NSEDC, both are in agreement that it’s time to stop fishing and try to keep what we have…”

– Charlie Lean

That’s Charlie Lean, the Chair of the Northern Norton Sound Fish & Game Advisory Committee (AC). During their latest meeting on Tuesday, Lean says the regional AC agreed to petition the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and ADF&G, to close the Norton Sound commercial red king crab fishery for the entire year.

Their proposal is in line with NSEDC’s request, which the corporation announced on Monday. In an unprecedented decision, NSEDC said that it will not buy crab this winter or summer, and instead focus on sustaining the Norton Sound red king crab fishery for the future.

NSEDC and Lean say they are concerned that the crab stock has experienced a reproductive failure and essentially crashed. According to observer data from ADF&G, cited by Lean, last year featured more mature female crab with little to no eggs than those with large clutches of eggs. Lean says that females lacking eggs could be caused by two things: egg parasites are eating the crab eggs, or male crabs aren’t around to fertilize them.

“We haven’t seen the parasite thing, so we believe this is a lack of breeding males. That’s backed up by the two commercial fisheries, winter and summer. The two trawl surveys, the state and federal trawl survey both found a minimal number of males, and now the females can’t find the males, so how many indicators does one need?”

Crab stocks are cyclical, with recruitment events happening every three to four years in the Norton Sound, as Fish & Game has stated previously. That’s based on the cannibalistic nature of crabs, the bigger ones eat the smaller ones, weaning out certain age classes in certain years, which creates gaps in between mature crab stocks.

Lean acknowledges that fact, but says the same type of crash the region is facing now happened in 1982, when he was working for the Nome Fish & Game office.

“Besides the existing crash, we can expect one in seven or eight years. And all this came down the pipe when I just started at Fish & Game back in 1982. We overfished the fishery, it crashed. Eight years later it crashed again. Eight years after that it crashed again. It took three generations for the crab population to stabilize. I’m very much afraid that we’ve just repeated history.”

If action is not taken and this cycle is not broken, Lean believes there is a good chance the region’s crab stock will drop below an irreparable level and the Norton Sound red king crab fishery could be gone completely. He cites ADF&G commercial crab fishing regulations that state when the population of any king crab stock falls below a certain threshold, that fishery can be closed and remain closed until there is “adequate brood stock.”

“Right now it’s a jointly managed fishery with the state having the in-season management authority. But should we drop (mature male biomass of crab) by another third, the feds will take over. It’s a guaranteed three-year closure for the commercial (crab) fishery, and really, it’s much more likely to be five or six years before it would reopen with a rebuilding plan, which means a lower harvest rate.”

ADF&G’s Area Manager for the Norton Sound, Jim Menard, says the winter commercial crab fishery plans to move forward with a quota of about 13,608 pounds for this season, which is exactly 8% of this year’s total commercial GHL. According to the department’s announcement yesterday, any crabbers wanting to sell their crab will have to rely on local catcher-sellers instead of a buyer like NSEDC’s Norton Sound Seafood Products.

The Norton Sound red king crab commercial fishery opens at noon on February 29th, barring any emergency closures or in-season actions from Fish & Game. According to Menard, at this point, it is unlikely the winter commercial crabbing season won’t take place.

Image at top: A winter commercial crabber out on the sea ice. Photo from Adem Boeckmann, used with permission.