Friday, September 10, 2010

Hard times on horizon for king crab?

The stock assessment for Alaska's richest shellfish harvest, Bristol Bay red king crab, is out. And it's disappointing.

The assessment incorporates the latest trawl survey, conducted annually in late May and June.

Deckboss spent some time reviewing the hefty document and found words for worry.

"Male abundance from the 2010 summer trawl survey was lower than expected," the assessment says.

Of course, it's only the big, male crabs that fishermen and processors can legally take to market.

The assessment said estimated mature male abundance and biomass were about 7 percent lower than in 2009.

But this isn't the biggest concern. The red king crab stock, not all that strong to begin with, looks to be heading into further decline.

"Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crabs should decline next year," the assessment says. "Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely."

Recruitment is when young crab reach the adult ranks.

OK, so what does this mean in terms of catch limits for this fall and for coming years?

The fishery opens Oct. 15.

Regulators announced the 2009 quota on Sept. 30, and it was 16 million pounds — down 21.6 percent from the prior year.

We seem likely to see another reduction when this year's quota is announced.

Without recruitment, future cuts could be much more severe.

Certainly, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been a story of spectacular boom and bust. The domestic harvest peaked in 1980 with a catch of nearly 130 million pounds.

The fishery never has approached that kind of productivity since, and managers were forced to shut it down as recently as 1994 and 1995.

Still, it's been extremely valuable in recent years, with last season's catch worth $70 million dockside and the 2008 fishery worth $100 million.

For crabbers, losing money like that would be the deadliest pain.

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