The last commercial opening for red king crab in Southeast was 2011. Photo/ADF&G

On November 1st, commercial crabbers in Southeast will have their first opening for red king crab in six years. But as Angela Denning reports, not all fishermen are happy about the details.

Mark Severson has been commercial fishing in Petersburg his whole life. When I walked around the docks looking for fishermen in the red crab fishery, several suggested I talk to Severson. He knows about the history, they said.

Severson does not agree with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s plan to allow a one-day opening in the core areas, close for four days of sampling, then open up a few areas for a yet-to-be decided length of time.

“One day is a joke, they threw us a bone and that’s all it is,” he said. “They’re going to pound everybody into a few bays and probably do more damage that way than if they’d do what they always do.”

Traditionally, fishermen would get about three days fishing in core areas and then nine or ten in non-core areas.

Joe Stratman is the state’s Lead Crab Biologist for the Southeast region. In a written statement, he says the fishery is targeting harvest levels and the one day opening coincides with the harvest rates that they are after.

Red Crab harvests are split into two groups in the Juneau area, commercial and personal use with personal use getting a bigger slice of the pie. The harvest goal for that area is 46,000 pounds of crab. Commercial fishermen get 40 percent while the sports fishermen fishing for personal use get 60 percent. Something that Severson also disagrees with.

“The sports fishermen part of it really gets me,” Severson says. “They get way more crab than we do without spending a dime other than a cheap pot.”

The Personal Use fishery in Juneau was closed for five seasons to allow for stock recovery. This summer, it opened back up because numbers were above average. Fishermen took about 18,600 pounds and will be able to catch more this winter. They are limited to two male crab per household for the season.

Outside of Juneau, there are more liberalized bag limits for the personal use. Starting in November, the bag limit will increase from one crab a day to three or six depending on the location.

Severson believes it’s unfair that personal use fishermen get more opportunity for the crab. He says it’s like handing the fishery to the sportsman:

“We get a one day crack at it. Commercial guys–it’s just ridiculous–now they’re going to get turned loose with a huge limit for Christmas crab for everybody in Juneau. And they’re going to catch three times what we catch,” Severson said.

Rich Lyons of Juneau had been fishing for personal use Red Crab for about 15 years but says he stopped several years ago when he was catching more than he wanted. He says these days, he just buys it at the store.

“I am one person who is glad that there’s a commercial fishery for Red King crab and I’m buying them,” Lyons said. “It costs quite a bit to take your boat out and run a couple of pots and then you’ve got some king crab, and my wife made me realize that for King crab it’s cheaper to buy them than it is to go fish for myself.”

Lyons says fishing restrictions in recent years has kept many people he knows from trying to harvest Red Crab.

Severson is also skeptical of the Red Crab surveys conducted by Fish and Game, which is part of what they base their management on. He says he’s gone on the state surveys himself.

“And quite frankly, they couldn’t catch a cold let alone a bunch of red king crab,” Severson said. “It’s not that they’re not there it’s that they’re not fishermen and they do the same things in the same spots every time as opposed to adjusting their gear a little bit and really finding out what’s around.”

State surveys have been done for about thirty years. In a written statement, Fish and Game’s Stratman says it’s not the first time the department has heard criticism of their survey methods. Industry concerns over stock assessments lead to an external review in 2005, which showed no flaws. But it did show areas for improvement, which Stratman says they are implementing. As for where they do the surveys, he says it’s in the areas where most of the harvest occurs.

Still, Severson believes the Red Crab are out there. He says he saw a lot of Red Crab last winter when he was out fishing for Golden King crab.

“We caught more Red Crab than Brown Crab and they don’t put any stock in that,” Severson said. “There are so many crab around that they’re out of the base. They’re just wondering around all over the place. Not that you can go out and catch a whole bunch of them out in the deep water, but after you get it, track them down, you can.”
59 fishermen in Southeast have permits to participate in the fishery. Red Crab has brought $11/pound in the last opening in 2011.