Fish and Game reopens controversial crab fishery

Fishermen are gratified but still believe the state is undercounting stock

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The state will reopen the Southeast Alaska commercial red king crab fishery this fall, following a hotly debated closure in 2004.

Commercial fishermen who warred with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game over the 2004 closure are gratified by the reopening, though they still believe the state is undercounting the red king crab population in Southeast Alaska.

"We're happy to get anything," said Lad Norheim, a Petersburg crabber.

The projected harvest for the red king crab fishery opening Nov. 1 is 200,000 pounds. That harvest level could net about $1 million for the region's crabbers, said Norheim, chairman of the Southeast Alaska King and Tanner Crab Task Force.

Last year, Fish and Game biologists estimated that only 80,000 pounds of red king crab could be harvested, based on poor results from their annual crab survey. The department closed the fishery because that amount was well below the state's guideline harvest level of 200,000 pounds.

The region's crabbers were outraged.

"It's hard to make loan payments (on a commercial crab permit) if you don't have a fishery," Morin said Tuesday.

Morin and other crabbers claim Fish and Game biologists paint an inaccurate picture of the crab population because they choose random locations within bays to drop their pots during the annual survey.

The fishermen say the department should focus on areas - such as submarine trenches - where they typically find crabs.

A third-party review of Fish and Game's sampling methods by three independent scientists is now being finalized, said Doug Woodby, chief marine scientist for Fish and Game's Commercial Fisheries Division.

Under pressure from commercial crabbers, the department changed several of its sampling and analysis techniques this year. The changes - and the lack of fishing pressure in 2004 - contributed to the increased crab population estimate, according to Kyle Hebert, Fish and Game's regional marine Commercial Fisheries supervisor.

Some changes were based on suggestions from the region's crab fishermen. But one major change - reducing the number of pots dropped during the survey in areas where few crabs have been found historically - was the result of a multiyear project to improve the crab survey, Hebert said.

Hebert said Fish and Game biologists do not plan to end sampling in areas that have low densities of crab. "Even in areas that are marginal habitat ... we want to see how the (numbers) change ... if the crabs are moving around," he said.

The 2005 survey shows an increased biomass of adult legal-sized red king crabs in all but two areas - Port Frederick and Seymour Canal, both of which will remain closed.

"Some areas increased substantially," Hebert said.

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