In the wake of Alaska’s closure of the Bering Sea snow crab, red king crab, blue king crab fisheries for 2022-2023 season, and likely for coming years, Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, hopes that reducing impacts of other gears on crab will hasten the resources’ recovery.
“We don’t believe that crab bycatch is the cause of the snow crab decline,” says Goen. “But we think it could slow down the recovery.”
Goen attributes the rapid and dramatic drop in snow crab abundance to a number of factors, mostly related to climate change.
“We know that climate was a main driver of the snow crab decline,” says Goen. “There was an absence of sea ice at a time when the snow crab population was exploding, and that created a number of problems.”
But when it comes to red king crab, Goen sees a corollary relationship between pelagic trawling and a long-term decline.
“The red king crab abundance has been going down for ten years,” says Goen. “That’s consistent with an increase in pelagic trawling in the Red King Crab Savings Area in Bristol Bay.”
Goen cites science that indicates pelagic trawl gear can be on bottom as much as 100 percent of the time. “They are letting those boats in there when the crab have molted and are vulnerable,” she says.
“We believe mortality on the crab could be much higher than what is being observed, especially when they are soft after molting.”
In January 2023, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denied the crabber’s request for emergency action to close the Red King Crab Savings Area. Goen suggests a number of solutions to keep the pelagic gear off bottom, such as bottom contact sensors and depth sensors paired with restrictions on bottom contact.
But the crabbers’ concerns are not limited to the trawlers. “Every gear type that interacts with a species has an impact,” says Goen, noting that the pot cod fishery is working on gear modifications to reduce crab bycatch.
“In our directed fishery we’re looking at larger mesh sizes and longer soaks so that when the bait is gone the smaller crabs and females have no reason to stay in the pot,” says Goen. “That will reduce the number of elevator rides for those crabs. When the weather is cold and windy on deck it’s hard on them.”
Recognizing that all fishing gears can affect target and non-target species, the crabbers still see trawlers as having a potentially significant impact on a snow crab stocks.
“Given their mobility, increase effort, large footprint of their gear on the ocean floor, and their fishing on molting and mating crab – all part of unobserved fishing mortality not counted toward bycatch – there should be a shared burden of conservation,” says Goen. “Especially when the stock is at a level of conservation concern. NOAA and the North Pacific Council should be erring on the side of caution.”
The crabbers want pelagic trawl gear off bottom or managed as bottom trawl. “But we’re not seeing meaningful action from our federal partners,” says Goen.