Finance fishing boats

Bering Sea crab closures mean potentially massive losses

This winter will mark the first time in US management history that the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will be closed.

While other crab stocks have been in decline in the North Pacific for years, the collapse of the snow crab fishery is doubly shocking to the industry. Not only is it one of the largest crab fisheries by volume in Alaska, but it has also gone from a booming and healthy fishery to being overfished and collapsing in five years, with little warning or clear explanation. Fishermen who invested in licenses and boats less than five years ago are now facing bankruptcy.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the trade organization representing the industry, estimated direct financial losses at around $500 million. Adding in the ripple effects on the economy, that estimate comes to about $1 billion. Jamie Goen, executive director of the ABSC, said fleet members have expressed frustration with past inaction by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on crab conservation as well as sadness over this closing.

[Earlier coverage: Alaska cancels Bering Sea king and snow crab seasons over worries of population collapse]

“(There is) deep sadness and shock at what we are facing right now,” she said. “I think there was hope there would be at least a small fishery for our guys to survive and the ships to work.”

The council heard and agreed to set maximum catch limits, which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game followed with announcing a total closure of the Sea of ​​Snow crab fishery. Bering and Bristol Bay red king crab. It’s the second year in a row for Bristol Bay’s red king crab, which has been in decline for more than a decade, but it’s the first Bering Sea snow crab closure in the history of American management, Goen said.

Just before the pandemic, snow crab population survey numbers seemed healthy enough for managers to raise catch limits and incentivize crew members to buy the catch. It was a sign of a healthy fishery, Goen said, which was also streamlined — a federal process designed to ensure a fishery is properly conserved and managed while allowing for maximum sustainable use. During the pandemic, no survey was conducted, so the next available data is from the 2021 survey. This is what showed an almost complete collapse of the stock and a reduction of almost 90% in the total allowed catches for last season.

This year’s survey was even worse. Almost all groups in the survey showed historic declines, except for immature female crabs, and managers are now working on a stock rebuilding plan that will likely take many years to come to fruition. In the meantime, the crabbers cannot fish or have very small quotas, which will not be enough to support them.

“We are facing the extinction of an industry,” Goen said. “These are independent family businesses. These are the second or third generation fishermen (we are losing).

This year’s shutdown presents the industry with potentially significant damage. When the boats are moored, crew members can choose to leave and not be available next year. With an industry like crab, which relies on experience to overcome the harsh conditions of the Bering Sea winters, it’s a huge loss, Goen said.

The Bering Sea’s two largest crab-processing communities — Unalaska and St. Paul — are also concerned about the impact. Unalaska Mayor Vincent Tutiakoff Sr. said in a letter to council that the town is concerned that its fishers, as well as associated businesses at the port, can survive these cuts and closures. St. Paul is even more vulnerable: crab landings and processing typically account for about 85% of the town’s revenue. Under current projections, St. Paul was expecting an overall loss of about 52% from 2021, with crab losses somewhat offset by the state-shared fishing tax program.

Phillip A. Zavadil, St. Paul’s city manager, wrote to the council that the city will “essentially be kept afloat” by these taxes, and the situation in 2023 will likely lead to even greater reductions.

“In the medium to long term, if this status persists, it will impact municipal services, the City’s ability to pay its debts and obligations, and its ability to finance or provide local counterparts to future port projects. and other infrastructure projects necessary to sustain Saint Paul. the island’s participation in the Bering Sea fisheries,” he wrote.

St. Paul’s community development quota fishing group, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, also saw a significant drop in revenue due to reduced crab catch limits. Heather McCarty, the association’s lobbyist, said the organization was looking for ways to diversify, but much of its portfolio was tied to crab fishing and processing quotas.

“We lose on three different levels,” she said. “We lose our share of the CDQ quota, we lose the revenue from our investment in the harvest quota and the processing quota.”

The group also depends on the infrastructure of the crab processing industry for its catches of halibut, another major part of the industry in the region. At present, the group plans to send vessels to participate in the very limited tanner crab fishery, which only has about 2 million pounds available this year, and the Aleutian golden king crab fishery, McCarty said.

“I think people expect not to make a lot of money,” she said. “But there are a lot of things (in fishing)…like keeping the crew lubricated, keeping the boat lubricated, things that need to keep running.”

Some vessels in the crab fleet might do the same, Goen said – while some may dock, others may go out for the small Tanner crab quota not expecting to make a lot of money, but just to keep the boats in operation and the crews. paid. However, they cannot continue to do so if the closures and tight quotas last for years. In the meantime, the ABSC is pushing for a disaster declaration for Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab, which could put money in the hands of fishermen to help them get through.

However, disaster processes in the fisheries sector can take years from when the request is granted to when the money actually gets into people’s hands — and that’s too long, Goen said. As the fleet explores other revenue options, such as using crabbers for research and diversifying into other fisheries where possible, the ABSC is working on a potential avenue to get this funding faster by disaster.

“We need money in the pockets within six months to a year, much like what farmers or communities get when a hurricane passes,” Goen said. “Disaster fisheries funding…takes two to four years. Our small family businesses will close at that time.

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