With Area Closure Denied, Bering Sea Crabcatchers Remain Focused On Bycatch

Despite the accident of red king crab and opilio in the Bering Sea, pollock trawlers will be able to fish in the Red King Crab Savings Area during this season.

Alaskan Bering Sea crabbers had petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year in hopes of closing the area, following the announcement that the red king crab would be closed for the second year in a row and that there would be no opilio season. by 2023. .

NOAA Fisheries’ response to allow trawling to continue in the area disappointed crab industry leaders, where economic losses linked to closed seasons for red king crab and opilio crab have already been estimated. at $287 million by the State of Alaska, and could affect $500 million including outlying industries.

The Red King Crab Savings Area (RKCSA), a 3,998 nautical mile (4,600 statute mile) area in the eastern Bering Sea, has been closed to bottom trawling since 1996; however, midwater trawls and fixed gear, longlines and pots have been allowed to fish within the area.

The request was to close the area from January 1 to June 30 to all types of gear under the emergency regulation as a temporary conservation measure, while a permanent solution would go through the conventional data collection council process. , public testimony and opinion, a process that can sometimes take years.

“The fishery is collapsed and we are closed; so this is an emergency situation,” says Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, in Seattle. “That was the point of the emergency action plan: Let’s put a Band-Aid on it for now and give stocks a chance to recover while we figure out a longer-term plan because the council will take at least a year or two, if not longer.”

NOAA denied the request on January 20, arguing that the Bering Sea Crabbers’ request did not meet the criteria necessary to demonstrate that an emergency exists; furthermore, that adapting an emergency regulation to close the area did not justify circumventing the council process.

“Specifically, the available information does not support the finding that the proposed emergency regulations would address the low abundance and declining trend of mature female Bristol Bay red king crabs,” the NOAA announcement reads.

“We didn’t think the petition met the ER (emergency regulation) criteria,” says Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, in Seattle. “But you never assume any outcome,” she said of the NOAA ruling.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council reviewed bycatch of crab and salmon trawls during an emotionally charged meeting in December. Testimony during the meeting included evidence that pelagic trawlers operated their gear close to the ocean floor 40 to 100 percent of the time when pollock schools are deep.

However, it turns out that other types of gear targeting halibut and cod in the area they account for most of the red king crab mortality. According to “Considering a Closure to the Red King Crab Savings Area for All Gear Types,” an analytical paper prepared prior to the NPFMC meeting in December, all types of gear fishing in the area take a variable number of animals each year. year, with pollock trawling catching only a fraction of the prohibited crab.

From 2013 to October 2021, all types of gear averaged 4,906 red king crabs from January to June, a critical reproductive and molting period in the crab’s life cycle. In 2015, the bycatch of king crab reached 15,756. During the same period, pollock trawlers caught an average of 8 king crabs with a maximum of 23 animals in 2019.

Regarding the validity of the crab bycatch data, Madsen reports that each of the 13 vessels operating within the RKCSA has two observers and multiple cameras on board.

“Clearly, we are not targeting trawlers,” says Goen. “We need to look at all sectors, including directed fishing. We’re closed right now, so all our impacts are gone.” Hopefully, Goen adds, the research scheduled for March will yield information leading to refinement of crab traps to reduce female bycatch.

A point of contention among crabbers is that for every crab that returns to the codend of the trawl, many more may have been killed by the hulls when the nets are towed close to the bottom.

“This could have a substantial impact on crab recovery,” Goen adds.

Meanwhile, the pollock trawl catch within the RKCSA has averaged 10.5 percent of the annual quota in recent years. Although the trawlers likely would have caught their Season A allocation of this year’s total 1.3 million metric tons elsewhere in the Bering Sea, the closed area would have added the risk that fishing effort would be shifted to alternative areas. bycatch of salmon, herring and other protected species could have increased. That, and there was no assurance that trawlers would not catch king crab incidentally in adjacent areas.

Surveys of red king crab abundance last summer revealed 120 mature female king crabs per square nautical mile within the RKCSA, with the highest concentrations of legal male crabs found in the northwest and southeast corners of the area. Given the tapestry of other habitat protection areas that are closed to trawling, shifting fishing effort within the RKCSA could land gear in areas of higher crab abundance.

Among action steps to mitigate red king crab declines, the council began efforts in December to conduct further surveys, including using crabbers beginning in March as test boats to collect data that could drive management changes for research purposes. 2023.

For crabbers that could be too little, too late, given the speed of the process.

“To be clear, I think we need trawling,” says Goen. “We need to bring healthy protein to the world. We need food security, but we have to balance it in a way that doesn’t harm other populations or helps make all of these populations as sustainable as possible.

“There’s a way to do it; we’re just going to have to work better together, and we’re going to have to move in time and space to be able to harvest and maximize all of our allocations.”