Bering crab season off to smooth start

Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009

Calm seas and unseasonably warm weather greeted Bering Sea crab fishermen as they embarked on the 2009-10 red king crab season in search of a harvest quota of 16.9 million pounds of king crab.

The Coast Guard meanwhile has begun its annual deployment of a Jayhawk helicopter and crew from Air Station Kodiak to Cold Bay for the red king crab fishery.

In January, Coast Guard officials will move that helicopter and crew to St. Paul for the opilio crab fishery, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Jon-Paul Rios.

"We want people to know we are out there," Rios said. "And we're not out there just for the crabbers. We are out there for everybody, so if something does happen, we can respond a lot faster."

That was the case on March 23, 2008, when the fishing vessel Alaska Ranger sank in the Bering Sea. Five people died when the Ranger sank 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor, but 42 others were rescued with the help of the Coast Guard and the crew of the Alaska Warrior, the Ranger's sister ship.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 62 vessels are on the fishing grounds out of the 93 that pre-registered for this year's red king crab fishery. Each vessel has a finite quota of allowable harvest and can fish until that quota is achieved.

Before the current crab rationalization program began several years ago, all crab vessels competed in what was commonly referred to as a derby fishery, all trying to harvest the most crab before the total allowable catch was achieved and the fishery ended, often in less than a week. The competition compelled many vessel operators to fish to during storms, resulting in loss of lives at sea.

Safety at sea was given as one reason for the crab rationalization program, which remains controversial because of the way crab harvest quotas were allocated to harvesters, along with processing quota rights to processors.

The crab rationalization program is in the midst of a five-year review by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The Coast Guard's marine safety detachment in Unalaska conducted exams aboard 41 of the 93 vessels that registered for this season. The Coast Guard said no overloading of pots was noted, but a few deficiencies -namely expired life rafts, hydrostatic releases and electronic position indicating radio beacon batteries - were found during safety checks. All deficiencies were confirmed corrected before the vessels got under way.

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