With low stocks and closures looming, Bering Sea crab fleet braces for another blow

For the City of Unalaska — home to the nation’s top fishing port — officials estimate the community will take about a half-million-dollar hit to the annual budget from the Bristol Bay red king crab closure. (KUCB file photo)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced earlier this month that all major crab stocks are down. And for the first time in over 25 years, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will be closed.

The species is world-renowned and was largely made famous by the popular reality TV show Deadliest Catch. In the glory days of king crab fishing, locals describe hundreds of boats rushing into the cold Bering Sea to harvest millions of pounds of crab worth even more millions of dollars.

The commercial fishery has been around since 1966. In the 55 years since then, there have been just two other closures: once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.

Now, the Bering Sea crab fleet and fishing communities around the state and the Pacific Northwest are bracing for another blow to their industry and are calling for new conservation efforts.

“It’s big news, and it’s hitting our industry really hard,” said Jamie Goen, executive director for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a trade association representing commercial crab harvesters. “We’re disappointed and deeply concerned.”

Goen said they estimate the closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery — which historically opens in mid-October — and the anticipated reduction in snow crab harvest could cost harvesters well over $100 million.

But, she said, it’s not only the fishermen who will be impacted. This hit affects everyone in the industry — roughly 70 vessels and over 400 fishermen and their families, along with the processors and fishing communities that rely on crab revenues.

“It’ll be a big reach,” she said. “[If] you look at the dollar value for Bristol Bay red king crab, it’s about a $30 million hit on our industry. So that affects the vessels and the crew, it affects the shipyards that they go into, it affects the processors that take the crab and the fishing communities that rely on it. But even more than that, it’s one of America’s and Alaska’s iconic species. It’s going to be a hit to the U.S. to not have Bristol Bay red king crab on the market.”

Every summer, federal and state agencies survey crab stocks — with the exception of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, said Miranda Westphal, the area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

For red king crab, she said management looks for mature males and females that can contribute to population growth. If numbers fall below a certain threshold, regulators don’t allow fishermen to harvest in order to give the stock time to bounce back.

And, Westphal said, they’ve been flirting with a closure for a while now. For the past decade or so, regulators have seen a stark decline in numbers. And this year, there just aren’t enough mature females to justify an opener.

“We could kind of see a closure was coming, we just didn’t quite know when,” she said.

The last closure was in the mid-90s. And at that time, Westphal said, they could see there was what she called a “recruitment pulse” coming — or juvenile crab coming up into the fishery — and that they could kind of tell it would be a short closure.

“[But] we can’t really say that this time,” she said. “It could be next year that the females hit the survey and everything’s back to normal. Or it could be that this is just part of the continuous decline we’ve been seeing over the last decade, and it’s going to be a few years or longer. We just don’t know right now.”

But Westphal said the data doesn’t suggest overfishing, and she hopes a one-year closure will be enough for the stock to rebound. Still, even a short closure would have far-reaching impacts.

For the City of Unalaska — home to the nation’s top fishing port — officials estimate the community will take about a half-million-dollar hit to the annual budget from the king crab closure. But king crab isn’t the only problem.

Abundance estimates for mature male snow crab declined 55% from 2019 estimates, and estimates for mature bairdi crab also declined slightly, based on the NOAA Fisheries 2021 Eastern Bering Sea Continental Shelf Trawl Survey Results for Commercial Crab Species.

While the survey results don’t translate directly to harvest levels, they generally follow the same trend and reductions are likely, according to Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. So throw the anticipated reduction in snow crab into the mix, and the total loss to the city could be about $1.7 million.

“It’s a significant amount of revenue, especially for the fleet and the city based on our fish tax revenues and a small amount of sales tax revenues generated,” said Frank Kelty, a fisheries consultant with the City of Unalaska.

Kelty arrived on the island more than 50 years ago to work as a crab processor, acted as the city’s mayor for more than 10 years and now consults on fisheries issues from his new home in California.

Kelty said the red king crab fishery — although high in value — has been low volume for many years, and Unalaska’s industry now relies on other species. So the impact to the community won’t be as dire as it was when the fishery crashed in the early 1980s, when there was no groundfish industry to fall back on.

“Basically, the revenue for the community was devastated when we had that crash in 1981,” he said. “It took us years to get back on our feet from that. And luckily, groundfish started up in 1986 in the community to get us going again. So yeah, it was devastating. We had major layoffs at the city and the plants closed their doors.”

But this year, plants won’t be closing their doors. That’s largely because Unalaska’s high dollar fish these days is pollock — which goes into products like McDonald’s fish sandwiches, fish sticks and sushi.

Tom Enlow is president and CEO of UniSea, Unalaska’s largest fish processing plant. Pollock now makes up about 85% of its operations in terms of overall pounds processed. Enlow said the biggest adjustment from the king crab closure will be laying off some seasonal workers who would normally stick around after pollock season wraps up this month.

“We’ll keep a crab crew around for golden king crab, but we’ll probably have a layoff for more people than we normally would after the pollock season ends,” he said.

Enlow said many in the industry have suspected a closure might be around the corner. UniSea purchased about 560,000 pounds of red king crab in 2019. Last year, that number dropped to only around 400,000 pounds.

While this closure may not carry the financial impact as those of the ’80s and ’90s, Enlow said it could hurt in other ways.

“UniSea started out as a crab processing plant,” he said. “And we still take a lot of pride in our reputation in the marketplace for the products we produce from crab, even though we’re more of a pollock-centric company. There’s something about red king crab that you just can’t replace with any other type of species of critter swimming in the sea.”

Another impact UniSea will likely see this year, Enlow said, is in the company’s hospitality division. UniSea owns Unalaska’s only hotel as well as about half of the restaurants in town. And because of the closure, he said the Original Productions crew — which films the popular Discovery Channel series “Deadliest Catch” about crab fishermen in the Bering Sea — likely won’t block out their usual 40 to 50 hotel rooms and meeting spaces in October.

A representative from Original Productions told KUCB they’re planning to do another season of Deadliest Catch. They did not say what that would look like.

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