National Fisherman


Fleet hopes royal prices will keep the fishery flush despite a declining catch

A strong yen, fleet and processor consolidation, and prospects of a smaller total allowable catch could drive ex-vessel prices for red king crab north of $10 per pound when the Bristol Bay season kicks off in October.

Last season’s TAC of around 7.8 million pounds was drastically lower than 2010-11’s 13.3 million pounds and 14.4 million pounds in ’09-10. Though the Alaska Department of Fish and Game hadn’t announced this year’s TAC by press time, the industry consensus was that it might be further reduced.

That should trigger buyer increased demand, says Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Seattle-based Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a crab harvester group.

“There are so many people that want crab that there’s no shortage of buyers,” he says.

Most of the red king crab demand comes from Japan, which takes up to 65 percent of Alaska’s harvest. Last year’s strong yen gave Japanese buyers an edge. And this year’s exchange rates are setting the stage for a repeat performance.
“I anticipate that [Japanese buyers] will take most of the product over there,” Jacobsen says.

According to the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, the monthly average value of the yen against the dollar during crab season strengthened from around 82 in 2010 to about 77 to the dollar last year. This year in July, the yen hovered at around 79. If it follows the trend of the past two years, it could strengthen slightly by October. That and the lower harvest quota will “have a big effect on price,” Jacobsen says.

Determining ex-vessel prices that each boat might receive for its catch has become complicated, since the red king crab fishery was rationalized in 2005, Jacobsen says. The most recent Fish and Game data shows average ex-vessel prices ratcheting up from $4.98 per pound in ’08-09 to $8.96 in ’11-12.

Fish and Game price data now includes the Community Development Quota fishery, and doesn’t reflect post-season adjustments. But the Alaska Department of Revenue lists last year’s price at $10.80 per pound. Some fishermen got even more for their catch last year, says Jacobsen. He explains that crabbers who hold “A” shares of individual quota, which are committed to delivering to specific processors, received the $10.80 per pound. Vessel owners holding “B” shares, meanwhile, can sell to any processors, and last year, the competing processors paid $11.30.

The strong prices haven’t quite offset the TAC decline, though. Fish and Game data shows that the value increased from $70.1 million for the ’09-10 season to $92.5 million for ’10-11, but receded to $69.9 million in ’11-12.

Discussions between regulators and the industry last March at an Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting resulted in eliminating a regulation from the fishery’s open access days that called for closing the red king crab season when the TAC was 4 million pounds or less, says Heather Fitch, area management biologist with Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor.

“It was just a relic of the old management system,” Fitch says.

The Bering Sea king crab season was closed in 1994 and 1995 when the TAC (then called a guideline harvest level) for the open access fishery fell below 4 million pounds. Under the present management program with individual shares and self-reporting, the fleet could conceivably fish on a TAC of even less than a million pounds.

Meanwhile, consolidation over the past seven years has whittled the fleet from around 250 vessels to 65, according to the NMFS Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Rationalization Report for 2010-11. During that same time period the average vessel has fished roughly the same number of registered pots (212 per vessel last year) but skippers are doubling the number of times they pull pots during the season from an average of 1,119 in 2005 to 2,025 last year.

— Charlie Ess

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