Extended crab and cod seasons keep the Bering Sea pot fleet churning
By Annie Ropeik
In the wheelhouse of the 117-foot Aleutian Mariner, skipper Gordon Kristjanson is doing some spring cleaning: washing windows, wiping down wood paneling and rearranging his navigational charts. It’s early March, unseasonably warm and sunny in Unalaska, Alaska, and Kristjanson and his crew have just switched over from fishing crab to Pacific cod — six weeks later than usual.
“Crab was steady — it was steady the whole time,” Kristjanson says as he watches Alyeska Seafoods processors off-load the Aleutian’s first cod haul of the year. “And then we came in here, and we rigged gear and worked like maniacs and got out on the cod grounds as fast as we could. Last night was the first break of any kind we’ve had. I mean, we had 10 hours of sleep at the docks.”
Pot boats over 60 feet long, like Kristjanson’s, have been out fishing almost nonstop since the Bering Sea crab seasons opened last fall. Usually, the fleet would take a break in January to snatch up some cod before going back to opilio snow and Bairdi tanner crab through the spring. But this year has been different. Huge crab quotas and lackluster cod prices have meant most of the 40 fishing vessels in the over-60-foot pot fleet have done things backwards.
“In the last couple of years, we’ve seen 29 to 31 boats start off with cod right away, January 1,” says federal management biologist Krista Milani, who oversees the cod fishery in Dutch Harbor. “This year we saw 12.”
The rest, she says, stayed focused on crab, either delaying cod or planning to forego it altogether — meaning a long, slow cod season that pushed well past its usual end date of late January, overlapping with other fisheries and throwing processing plants off their normal schedules.
Of course, it’s been a nice end-of-season bonus for boats like the Aleutian Mariner: “Christmas in March,” says Kristjanson. Of the seven-vessel Mariner co-op, based in Seattle, the Aleutian is the only one that finished crab in time to sneak in a few loads of cod. Their first was 280,000 pounds — worth anywhere from $56,000 to $84,000 at current market prices, in the 20- to 30-cent range. That high end’s about the same as last year.
“I think they’re jealous that we got all our crab, because they’re all struggling right now,” Kristjanson says of the rest of his co-op.
Though crab prices are down a bit from last year, too, state management biologist Heather Fitch says the big quotas have kept the fleet hard at work all season anyway. The total allowable catch for tanner crab is at its highest in two decades, five times more than last year. Snow crab got a 25 percent boost.
“It hasn’t stopped,” Fitch says. “Normally we get this nice lull from mid-November to January, where we can take a breather, catch up on paperwork. There has been no break. Not even, like, a week. It’s just been solid.”
Unlike crab, where quota is divided up among the fleet, cod is still an open-access fishery — meaning boats can take as much fish as they can find until they reach the season quota. Kristjanson’s crew is planning to try… » Read the full article in our MAY issue.