Commercial, personal-use crabbers spar over access

Juneau residents ask state to reserve popular waters for their own pots

Posted: Sunday, February 05, 2006

Some Juneau residents who relish catching Dungeness crab for their own dinner tables are getting a bit grouchy lately.

It's not the crabs that are bothering them. It's their close proximity with commercial crabbers - who also catch Dungeness in the small bays north and south of Juneau and in Admiralty Island's Funter Bay - that makes them snappish. And they're asking the state to reserve the popular waters for their own crab pots.

Personal-use and commercial crabbers both set Dungeness pots in the summer. Though the personal-use Dungeness fishery runs year-round, most Juneau residents focus on the crab during spring and summer - the period of calmer seas and warmer weather - when they take their boats out on weekends. Their effort overlaps with the summer commercial Dungeness fishery, which runs from June to August.

Taku Harbor "gets overrun" with Dungeness pots in the summer, and it becomes difficult to navigate in the small, protected bay south of Juneau, said Chris Donek, a Juneau resident who enjoys mooring her 48-foot vessel there on summer weekends.

Most of the pots are from commercial boats, she said.

Closing Taku Harbor or Funter Bay to commercial crabbers could cause economic harm for some Juneau or Petersburg-based commercial fishermen, said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, which advocates for a number of commercial fishing groups.

Crab boxes:

Commercial Dungeness catches in Southeast Alaska, 2001-2005

2001 - 2.53 million pounds

2002 - 7.34 million pounds

2003 - 4.53 million pounds

2004 - 4.6 million pounds

2005 - 4.18 million pounds

Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game


Estimated harvest by sport/personal use Dungeness crab fishermen at Juneau docks, 2001-2005*

2001 - 6,093 pounds

2002 - 7,271 pounds

2003 - 11,629 pounds

2004 - 17,722 pounds **

2005 - 15,858 pounds **

* The total number of Southeast sport/personal use Dungeness fishermen is not tracked; the state does not require a separate tag or permit to catch Dungeness crab.

** These annual figures include Echo Cove, which was previously omitted from Juneau creel surveys

Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Hansen is chairwoman of the Juneau-Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

When fishing in the same small area, the personal-use fisherman is at a disadvantage to commercial crabbers, whose effort and skill allow them to "pretty well pick up all of the available legal crab," said Carl Rosier, a Juneau sport fisherman.

The state hasn't pinpointed a depletion problem with Dungeness in Southeast Alaska, though it doesn't run a regional population survey for Dungeness like it does with some other fish and crab stocks.

Fortunately, Dungeness are a shorter-lived species that can sustain a higher harvest rate than some other species. So far, the state has been able to adequately manage Dungeness crab by restricting the size of the male crabs that can be caught, said Fish and Game shellfish biologist Gretchen Bishop.

Some residents, such as Gordon Harrison, who has a cabin in Funter Bay, monitor the commercial Dungeness pots that appear in their favorite recreation spots in the summer. Harrison also pays careful attention to the size of the crabs he catches in his own pots.

"We like the crab. I won't deny it. (Funter) Bay has been very, very productive and we've all enjoyed the harvest out there," Harrison said.

"The problem was, in the 2004 season, the bay was inundated with commercial crabbers. It was truly a dazzling sight," Harrison said. It also was more difficult for recreational users to catch legal-size crab that summer because of the intense commercial effort in Funter Bay, Harrison said. In contrast, the commercial effort was virtually nil in 2005, he said.

Last year, Harrison and a handful of other Juneau residents filed three proposals to close down three bays - Funter Bay, Echo Cove and Taku Harbor - to commercial Dungeness crabbing.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries will take up their proposals Feb. 20-26 in Ketchikan.

The board also will consider similar proposals to prohibit commercial Dungeness crabbing in the south arm of Chiak Bay near Angoon and upper Taiya Inlet near Skagway.

Personal-use fishermen have tried to convince the Board of Fisheries to close Echo Cove at least three times in the past with no success. In 2000, the board did close other areas - Tee Harbor, Point Lena and Bridget Cove. Over time, the state has closed as many as 20 areas in Southeast Alaska to commercial Dungeness crabbing, including Auke Bay, Gastineau Channel, Gustavus, Tenakee Springs, Elfin Cove and Sitka Sound.

Juneau sportsman and Dungeness personal-use crabber Nick Yurko this month handed a petition with 91 signatures to close Echo Cove to commercial crabbing to the Juneau-Douglas Fish and Game Advisory Committee. He is a vice-chairman of the committee.

Residents shouldn't have to compete with the commercial crabbers, Yurko said in an interview.

Yurko said he hates to keep pushing local commercial crabbers farther away from Juneau. The problem is, "Juneau is growing," he said.

"In the 1970s, the sport (fishermen) didn't go to Funter. Now there are bigger, more efficient boats and people are moving out a bit," Yurko added.

Closing Echo Cove to crabbing would harm the livelihood of a single commercial fishing family - the Deatses, who sells the Dungeness crab they catch in Echo Cove off their truck in Juneau.

Ted Deats runs 40 to 45 Dungeness pots in Echo Cove from his 34-foot boat, the Finale, each summer with his wife Emma and four boys. About 40 other pots in the summer are maintained by personal use fishermen, Deats estimated.

Deats worries about the financial consequences of the proposed closure. Juneau residents who buy the Deatses' crabs at "reasonable" prices" would also suffer, he said.

Other commercial crabbers in Juneau said they are prepared to broker a compromise with Yurko and other personal-use fishermen that would close Echo Cove to commercial Dungeness crabbing, but only during the summer.

The crabbers had to make a decision as a fleet and couldn't just base it on one fisherman's needs, explained Paul Burrill, a Juneau commercial crab fisherman.

Juneau commercial crabber Rick Daugherty suggested that some other areas around Juneau previously closed to crabbers could be traded for a closure in Echo Cove. Deats, a member of the committee, opposed the idea.

The committee deliberated on the idea and ended up revising Yurko's proposal and recommending it to the Board of Fisheries. The new proposal would close Echo Cove in the summer to commercial crabbing but allow commercial crabbing there during the traditional fall Dungeness fishery.

In exchange, Eagle Beach, Lena Point, Bridget Cove and Tee Harbor would be reopened to commercial Dungeness crabbers during the fall, when fewer personal-use fishermen are targeting the crabs.

The committee voted against closing Taku Harbor and Funter Bay, saying there didn't appear to be a conservation problem. Donna Emerson, a year-round resident of Funter Bay, said she has not seen a dramatic decline in Dungeness crab harvests there.

On the other hand, the approach of summer commercial closures and fall openings for Echo Cove could be applied to Taku Harbor and Funter Bay, if those areas continue to be controversial, Yurko said.

Such compromises might work out, but opening Tee Harbor, Eagle Beach and other areas close to Juneau that were completely closed in 2000 to commercial fishing could prove controversial among Juneau residents, said Harrison, who owns the Funter Bay cabin.

Harrison further complains that the Juneau-Douglas committee didn't give a fair airing to the Funter Bay or Taku Harbor proposals.

After hearing the testimony at the advisory committee meeting, "We just didn't see enough justification," Hansen responded Friday.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached

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