Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Managers move to save snow crab fishery

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to get rid of a regulation that could shut down the upcoming Bering Sea snow crab fishery.

The underlying problem is that the catch limit could be drastically lower this season because the depressed snow crab stock hasn't made enough progress under a 10-year rebuilding plan.

Under existing state regulations, the stock must be capable of safely supporting a commercial catch of at least 15 million pounds (not including community development quota). Otherwise, the fishery can't open.

But the rule is archaic, the department argues, imposed to control a fleet that once was much larger with each boat racing to catch as much crab as possible. The worry then was that a big and powerful fleet could overshoot the quota before managers could whistle the harvest to a halt.

Beginning in 2005, the universe changed and each boat received its own quota. The racing stopped and the fleet consolidated. So the need for a sizeable catch limit no longer is necessary, as boats can rationally fish a quota of less than 15 million pounds without worry of overharvest.

The department is asking the state Board of Fisheries for expedited consideration of a proposal to drop the rule.

We'll know soon how big, or small, the snow crab total allowable catch (TAC) will be for this season.

Fishery scientists on what's known as the Crab Plan Team are meeting in Seattle this week to go over the latest stock assessment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has indicated it'll announce a maximum harvest rate by Sept. 21, keeping both the stock assessment and rebuilding plan requirements in mind.

Last year's TAC was 52.7 million pounds of snow crab (plus CDQ of 5.9 million pounds).

Crabbers are unlikely to enjoy a limit that large when the new season opens Oct. 15.

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