There will be no commercial fishing for red and blue king crab in Southeast again this year. The stocks are still in poor shape according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which announced the closure last week. Matt Lichtenstein reports:

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Fish and Game assesses the red crab stocks each year. That involves the results of an annual on-the-grounds survey, past commercial harvest data, and for the past few years, the results of a cooperative research project involving fishermen and the department. According to the Department, the Southeast Red King Crab stock has been in decline since 2001 and is at its lowest level in 23 years.

“Stock health ratings of poor in the majority of the survey areas and well-below average ratings in the others offered no harvestable surplus towards the minimum threshold in regulation so the department recommended that there not be a commercial fishery this season,” says Joe Stratman, Fish and Game’s Lead Crab Biologist for the region.

The department can only open the season if it estimates an available surplus of at least 200-thousand pounds. That’s only happened 5 times over the past 13 years.

Photo courtesy of ADF&G

The department estimates the total amount of mature crab in Southeast at 910 thousand pounds. 740 thousand pounds of those crabs are legal size, which means they would be big enough to keep in a commercial fishery. Stratman says it’s not a significant decrease from last season, which was also closed.

“There weren’t huge changes in the biomass from last year for both legal and mature. So, I guess we would call the stocks below average but stable. Things didn’t seem to get a lot worse from last year,” says Stratman.

According to Stratman, the department is not seeing the recruitment of newly-legal-sized crab into the fishery on an annual basis.

When it’s open, the November red crab season provides an important economic boost for permit-holders and their crew as well as processors and support businesses. Last time there was a season in 2011, 54 permit-holders landed 176 thousand pounds. At more than ten dollars a pound, the crab was worth 1.87 million dollars at the docks.

“I wish there was more crab in the water but I think we all realize its somewhat depressed right now for some reason other than the commercial fishery,” says John Barry, a red-crab fishermen and co-chair of the Southeast Alaska King and Tanner Crab Task force. That’s a group of industry representatives and state officials who work on research and management issues.

In the future, Barry says the fleet would like to see the 200 thousand pound threshold lowered or done away with entirely, “Because, when there’s not a fishery, it’s not only an economic loss but it’s also an important loss of data for the predictive results of the model. Even if there’s 100 thousand pounds instead of the 200 thousand pound threshold, it’s still a million dollars of economic value and we have the data every year”

In the past, the industry has argued that department red crab estimates were too low. Fleet input led to changes to the annual department survey along with an on-going, collaborative effort to gauge crab numbers with the help of commercial fishermen and a new survey method. The study, which started in 2009, involves catching, marking, and recapturing crab. The work resulted in an adjustment that led to an open fishery in 2011. But even with the adjustment this year and the last, the estimated biomass was too low for another opening.

Still, Barry thanks the department for working with the fleet on the project.

“It’s done a lot to ease a lot of the strife between management and the fishermen. We’re all somewhat on the same page now. It’s pretty cool,” Barry says.

The department plans to continue the mark-recapture study this year.

Meanwhile, the department also announced that some areas will be newly-closed for personal use red and blue crab fishing at the end of the month. That includes Pybus bay and Gambier bay off Admiralty Island and Holkum bay off the mainland.