Golden king crab fleet loses bid for quota increase
The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fleet came away empty-handed last week, after the Alaska Board of Fisheries decided against a quota increase, rejecting both the initial request of 15 percent, and the compromise proposal of 5 percent.
Dillingham fish board member Fritz Johnson said the stability and health of the fishery merited at least a small increase, and proposed an amended boost of five percent, which passed by a 4-3 vote. But the amended motion ultimately failed by the same margin, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's representative, shellfish biologist Heather Fitch of Unalaska, said the department opposes even five percent more harvesting of the crustaceans also called brown king crab.
Fitch said the department lacks the data needed to justify any increase, and a majority of the board agreed when they voted it down March 20, meeting at the Anchorage Sheraton. The annual quota remains unchanged, at 6.29 million pounds.
"I'd hate to take a chance and look back at this two to three years from now, and say 'we made a big mistake'," said board chair Karl Johnstone of Anchorage.
Also opposed was board member Sue Jeffrey of Kodiak, who said crab are a difficult species to manage, and can "fall off the cliff pretty easily." Though voting in favor of the five-percent amendment, she said she only did so to prevent a possible increase to 15 percent.
Johnstone cited declining catch rates, and said a quota increase "may have an adverse effect." The fish board has twice given the fleet five percent more crab, in 2008 and 2012.
The crabbers' science advisor disputed reports of reduced catch rates, known as the catch per unit of effort.
"It's not accurate to say it's declining," said biologist John Hilsinger of the Aleutian King Crab Research Foundation. He said the catch rate has "dramatically" increased over the years from around 10 crab per pot to 20 to 30, a rate that varies annually but still shows an abundant resource.
State crab biologist Douglas Pengilly said that in the absence of regular crab surveys, regulators face "a great deal of uncertainty" in managing the golden king crab fishery.
Fitch said the extreme costs of chartering a vessel to survey the vast fishing grounds along the Aleutian Chain prevents the state from gathering the needed information.
Hilsinger said the research foundation will continue working on finding a way to count the golden king crab in their underwater habitat. He estimated that a 15 percent quota increase would have meant an additional $3.5 to $4 million paid to the fishing fleet of between five and six boats. That's based on prices of $3.50 to $4 per pound paid to fishermen, he said.
The vote was loudly greeted with a barnyard epithet from a veteran fisheries lobbyist seated near the front of the audience.
"Bullshit!" exclaimed Clem Tillion. "You just screwed the fleet for no reason whatsoever." He said the decision means a "surplus" of crab will go unharvested.
Tillion represents Adak fisheries interests, although he said that crab is not currently being processed by the new owners of the island's fish plant.
Following the vote, disappointment was also expressed by Wes Jones from Dillingham, of the Golden King Crab Coalition. Jones works for a major owner of golden king crab individual fishing quotas and community development quotas, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., the Nome region's CDQ group.
The quota increase was opposed by fish board members Reed Moriskey of Fairbanks, Orville Huntington of Huslia, and Johnstone and Jeffrey. Voting in favor were John Jensen of Petersburg, Tom Kluberton, of Talkeetna, and Johnson.
Fitch said the golden king crab are harvested by large catcher vessels between 100 and 300 feet long, all delivering shoreside. The former catcher-processor Patricia Lee has been converted into a catcher-only crabber, she said.
Hilsinger retired in 2010 as the director of the state commercial fisheries division, following a career that included six years as a shellfish biologist for Sand Point and Chignik. He takes over the science advisor position from another former ADF&G biologist, Denby Lloyd, who helped start the foundation last year.
Hilsinger called his new job "exciting," because so little is known about the deep water crabs that live amid underwater mountain ranges extending 800 miles along the Aleutian Chain.
"Surveys to evaluate the Aleutian crab resource have been very limited due to its distance. A commercial fishery has been sustained for more than 30 years, now with a conservative fixed harvest cap of 6 million pounds per year. Crabbers have long believed that the catch could be higher," according to the foundation.
Unlike other king crab fisheries where pots are dropped individually into the water, golden king crab pots are longlined together in strings of 50, which Hilsinger said prevents pot loss, a common occurrence in single pot fishing.
"They virtually never lose any gear," he said.
Gear loss in single pot fisheries is typically caused by the disappearance of the buoy floating on the surface, which suspends a rope line connected to the big steel crab trap on the ocean floor for hoisting back onto the boat. But with golden kings, buoys at opposite ends of the longlines provide two retrieval points. And if both buoys are lost, they crab pots can still be brought to the surface with a grappling hook snagging the longline, Hilsinger said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at email@example.com