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Crab fishery faces identity crisis

March 4th, 2017 | Jim Paulin, The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman Print this article   Email this article  

Is it a bairdi Tanner or is it an opilio Tanner snow crab? Or is it something in between, a hybrid?

The Bering Sea commercial crab fishery is facing an issue fundamental to identity, and in what fishery which crustaceans can legally appear. In this issue, it's up to the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

Crabbers and their allies in the Pribilof Islands say a hybrid should be considered part of the catch of whatever the fishermen are targeting, whether Tanner bairdi or Tanner opilio. While both have Tanner in their names, the bairdi are commonly known as Tanners, while the typically smaller opilio are called snow crab. They are managed separately by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee last week narrowly endorsed by, a 4-3 vote, a request by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers to allow the hybrids to go either way, considered a bairdi in a bairdi fishery or opilio during a snow crab fishery.

The two species "naturally crossbreed with one another with their offspring displaying physical characteristics from both parents (species)," according to the crabbers in Proposal 254, which the Alaska Board of Fisheries will consider at its March 20-24 meeting.

"The mixed physical characteristics make it extremely difficult to identify hybrid Tanner crab in a quick and efficient manner, especially during active fishing operations," the crab group complained.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has its own proposal to try to make things a little clearer, and that was unanimously approved by the Unalaska committee in a 7-0 vote on Feb. 20. Fish and Game doesn't propose any special treatment for hybrids, but rather suggests that fishermen look at pictures of the two species, to try to tell them apart, "as illustrated" in the department's quick reference guide to crab.

"A separate fishery for hybrid crab does not exist; however, hybrid Tanner crab are classified as either C. bairdi or C. opilio," according to characteristics described in fishery regulations, according to ADF&G's proposal, number 260. "Adopting the department's quick reference guide is a measure to help fishermen identify the two harvestable species."

However, the crabbers and Pribilovians contend that telling the two species apart is difficult even for experts, citing a study by Fish and Game and an East Coast university.

"This point is emphasized in a study by ADF&G and University of Maine researchers in which experts encountered significant difficulty in consistently identifying hybrid C. opilio crab. This same study also noted difficulty on the part of observer trainees in correctly identifying hybrid C. opilio," according to Proposal 255, from the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, and two Pribilof Island organization, the city of St. Paul, and the Central Bering Sea Fisherman's Association.

The Unalaska advisory committee supported Prop. 255 by a 5 - 2 vote. It calls for allowing boats targeting bairdi to keep all the incidentally caught opilio, with the crabbers and islanders complaining of lots of bairdi boats getting busted for illegal opilio bycatch.

"During the 2015-16 commercial Tanner season, an unusually high number of citations were issued to vessels regarding the retention of hybrid Tanner crab," since they were considered opies under current regulations, according to the proposal. If a vessel operator had sufficient opilio individual fishing quotas, he should have been allowed to keep them, they added.

The crabbers and Pribilovians also made an economics case for full retention, saying "this flexibility will work to maximize delivery of crab to coastal communities, especially to the community of St. Paul. This will result in increased fish taxes, business taxes, and other fees," such as fuel sales and supplies. And it will reduce "unnecessary" and sometimes deadly discards, where the illegal species is tossed overboard, which can kill them.

The Unalaska committee, however, was not sympathetic to a request from the crabbers nor the St. Paul-based groups to allow the full retention of bairdi crab caught incidentally during the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, opposing Prop. 256 by a vote of 6 to 1.

Jim Paulin can be reached at


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