Crabbers set for slush, cold, low prices

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008

As the sun set on a slushy gray Monday, the last crabbers still in town were scrambling to leave for this week's tanner crab opener in Southeast Alaska.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

The crew of the Mongoose, at Aurora Basin boat harbor in downtown Juneau, was loading crab pots for the tanner season. They were still unsure of where they were going, or when they would leave.

"Miserable!" said Chris Placer, Mongoose crew member, when asked how things were going. "The price of fuel is up, and the price of crab is down."

Processors are offering $1.60 per pound for tanner crab, the lowest price in 10 years. Price is based on global market demand, and most tanner ends up in Japan.

The local tanner and golden - also known as brown - king crab seasons both open at noon Thursday. But they're two very different fisheries.

The season for golden king crab lasts at least a couple of months. Forty vessels in Southeast Alaska have registered this year. They've been given a guideline harvest of around 525,000 pounds. The crabbers report their catches to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as they go, and the state ends the season when the guideline harvest has been caught.

The tanner season is much more intense. Tanner crabbers have six days in the Fish and Game-designated core areas, where most fishing is done, and five more days in noncore areas.

The tanner harvest used to be open for months, like the golden crab fishery. But Fish and Game shrunk the tanner season dramatically in the 1990s, as fishing competition went up, said Karla Bush, a fishery manager based in Douglas.

This year's tanner guideline harvest limit is 987,000 pounds, similar to last year's target. It's supposed to be 20 percent of what Fish and Game estimates is the amount of mature male crab in the area. This year, 70 vessels registered, compared with 85 last year.

The golden crab fishery has been robust lately. But the tanner crab fishery has seen a gradual decline in the last 10 years, Bush said.

"It's not clear why there's been a decline," she said.

Fish and Game's estimates of how many crabs there are, or how many should be taken, are contested by some crab fishermen.

In 2006, crabbers caught 74.82 million pounds of crab in Alaska, worth $154 billion. Of that, the tanner harvest accounted for 4.48 million pounds. Southeast's tanner fishery was the third biggest, after that of Kodiak and the Bering Sea.

Tanner crabs are closely related to the snow crab, which is fished in much greater numbers and only in the Bering Sea.

With such a short season, local tanner crabbers sleep less, turn their pots over more quickly - perhaps every 12 hours, instead of every 24 - and generally work as fast as they can.

"As fast as we can do it and remain safe," Place said. "The pots are heavy and people do die."

Place had plenty to scowl about Monday evening, but he was still looking forward to fishing.

"When you catch a bunch of crab, that's fun," he said.

But in particular, he meant the anticipation - that moment when he's pulling up the pots and looking for a flash of crab color, tan or golden, filling the pot.

Place was born on a 28-foot gillnetter, he said, and he started crabbing with his dad when he was 5 or 6 years old. At that time he was in charge of chopping bait.

The rest of the crew - skipper Bernie Osborne and Chris Place's brother, Aaron Place - can perhaps look forward to his cooking. He went to culinary school, at one point.

King crab is raved about more in these parts. But if you ask Place, tanner crab is the best eating there is.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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