The red and blue king crab commercial fishery will not open in Southeast Alaska this year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced last week.
The department has analyzed the survey data it collected this summer and has determined the biomass of mature male red king crab is at its lowest level in 16 years. The survey data indicated the available harvest in Registration Area A, which basically encompasses the Inside Passage waters from Dixon Entrance to Cape Spencer, is 13,075 pounds.
A management plan and regulations bars fishing below a 200,000-pound threshold, said Joe Stratman, shellfish management project leader for ADF&G.
"So obviously we are way under that," he said.
The biomass of mature male red king crab has been in decline since 2001.
There are concerns amongst Southeast Alaska red king crab fishermen about the validity of the survey used, said Kathy Hansen, executive director for the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.
"The commercial crab fleet is in a continual discussion with the department," she said. "We don't believe their survey results are a complete indication of the health of the stocks."
There are about 80 permit holders in the region that the king crab closure will affect, Hansen said.
F/V Frigid Land owner Ladd Norheim of Petersburg is not surprised by the red crab fishery closing for another year, but he still has to make payments on his permit. He was looking forward to the Nov. 1 opening date.
"We just keep the boats tied up and hope that there is enough brown crab and tanner crab to make our payments," he said.
Norheim, who is a member of the King and Tanner Crab Task Force, said he is not fond of how the annual survey is conducted. He said he has seen and heard of an abundance of red king crab within the region.
"In my 25 years that I've been (crewing) and running a boat, I've never seen so many red crab in other fisheries, including long lining," he said.
The department surveyed nine locations in the region between late June and early August where fishermen have historically caught red king crab. The areas include Pybus Bay, Gambier Bay, Seymour Canal, Peril Strait, Lynn Sisters, Excursion Inlet, Port Frederick, Holkham Bay and the Juneau area. The estimate of available harvest was determined through a catch-survey analysis that incorporates data from the 2009 survey and prior years, the 2005 commercial harvest and port sampling, according to an ADF&G press release.
This year, six of the surveyed areas were determined to be in poor stock health, two below average and one area moderate, Stratman said. The department does not speculate on why the stock of red crab has been decreasing, he said.
Blue crab are considered an "insignificant bycatch" of the red crab fishery, which is why that species is included in the closure, Stratman said.
Norheim said fishermen don't have a problem finding red king crab in the region, but for some reason the surveyors can't seem to find them each summer.
"They randomly throw these pots on those sets, and if there's no crab in them that means there is no crab in the area," he said of ADF&G's method. "And you know, the red king crab is the most elusive crab to try and catch of all the species because they are like big cows; they roam around all over the place."
The crab fishermen are in the process of trying to get an independent survey done by a reputable biologist that can shed more light on the population figure of red king crab in the region, Norheim said.
"If they're not there, then fine, we can all sit back and relax and figure out what the problem is," he said. "If they are there, we want to be able to fish on them."
It is too early to determine whether or not the commercial fishery will reopen next year, Stratman said.
"We don't do any kind of forecasting for any of our crab fisheries," he said. "Crab are notoriously difficult to age, unlike salmon, so we don't make any guesses what next year's survey results will be."
Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.