Bering Sea crabbers report recruitment uptick, strong prices

Bering Sea crabbers saw upticks in crab recruits during a good fishery for the 2018-2019 season, along with strong prices.

The crab season opens in mid-October for red king crab, Tanners and snow crab (opilio), and while fishing goes fast for red kings in order to fill orders for year-end markets in Japan, the fleet typically drops pots for the other species in January.

Crabbers said they saw strong showings of younger crab poised to enter the three fisheries. Only male crabs of a certain size are able to be retained for sale.

“For Bristol Bay red king crab the reports were very positive,” said veteran crabber Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange which represents the majority of Bering Sea crabbers. “I got a lot of reports from people saying they saw a lot of recruitment around, a lot of females and small crab, but some boats didn’t see any. So, it depended on where you were. Overall, the catch seemed to go pretty fast and the fishing was good, it wasn’t scratchy at all for most of the boats.”

The price also was good. The red king crab fetched $10.33 per pound, up from $9.20 last season, for a catch of 4.3 million pounds.

Crabbers also saw good numbers of bairdi Tanners which had a harvest limit of 2.4 million pounds. Jacobsen said price negotiations are still ongoing for both Tanners and their smaller cousin, snow crab.

“We should be close to record prices for opilio (snow crab),” Jacobsen said.

The record snow crab price was $4.98 a pound set in 2012; last season’s price was $4.04 per pound.

Competing imports from Russia are up substantially, Jacobsen said, and the are trying to get rid of product held over from last season.

“That’s brought the price down and I expect prices will start to climb again as people get a feel for availability of the resource and what the crab looks like,” he added.

Snow crab is a bright spot for the Bering Sea fleet. A catch of 27.5 million pounds this season was a 47 percent increase after the 2018 summer survey showed a 60 percent boost in market sized males and nearly the same for females. Bob Foy, NOAA director of science and research based at the Auke Bay lab in Juneau, called it “one of the largest snow crab recruitment events ever seen.”

Jacobsen said that was consistent with what the crabbers saw on the fishing grounds. That has
speculation running wild that the snow crab catch could double again for next season, but he added it’s best to wait and see.

“I’ve been in the business too long to get excited about that kind of news because I’ve heard it before. It all depends on the summer survey and we’ve been trying to make some improvements in the stock assessment model. But it looks pretty positive,” he said. “What we’re looking for isn’t dramatic swings. We’d rather have a steady, fishable population but with nature that’s not always possible. Crab are very cyclic in their population numbers.”

There’s been some tension between crabbers and managers in recent years over big differences in what crabbers are seeing on the fishing grounds and the numbers managers pull up in the summer trawl survey.
“Apparently, the crab go on vacation somewhere else in the summertime because they haven’t been showing up in the survey recently,” Jacobsen added with a laugh.

Last season the three Bering Sea crab fisheries were valued at $190 million for a fleet of about 85 boats.

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Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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