Crab fishermen in a pinch after fishery closed

Second lowest population tally in 15 years sited for halt to red king harvest

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2006

Southeast Alaska crabbers were feeling a pinch this week after authorities closed the red king crab fishery. A survey showed the red king population had dropped this season to its second lowest level in 15 years.

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John Etheridge, a Juneau-based crabber, was taking the free time to work on his boat at the Harris Harbor.

The closing of the fishery, which was due to open this week, has "a pretty substantial impact on most of us," he said. Etheridge is chairman of the Southeast King and Tanner Crab Task Force, a group of fishermen, processors and others in the industry.

The impact varies, but some fishermen depend on red kings for up to 25 percent of their income, he said.

Red king crabs are considered Southeast's least valuable fishery in terms of overall revenue. The total ex-vessel price has averaged roughly $1 million for the past five years, said Kyle Hebert, shellfish program supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The season is short - typically lasting just five days. However, some portions of Southeast waters opened for up to 14 days in 2005.

The five-year average ex-vessel price for Dungeness crab is $6.4 million; golden, $2.2 million; and tanner, $1.8 million. The ex-vessel price is the dollar value of loads at the dock, rather than in stores.

"It is the lowest valued, but that doesn't mean it isn't a big hit to some people," Hebert said. "There are certain communities in Southeast (that are hit harder). Petersburg is a big one. There is a large concentration of the crab fleet there. Juneau has a fair number of crab fisherman, but a broader economic base, so fisheries might not make as large of an impact as a place like Petersburg or Wrangell."

The last time the fishery was closed was in 2004. It was also closed in 2000, 1998, and for an eight-year span between 1985 and 1992, Hebert said.

To have a viable fishery, surveys must show that 200,000 pounds of legal male red crab could be sustainably caught. This year's survey fell well short of that number, at just 81,500 pounds, according to a Sept. 13 press release.

Hebert acknowledges that the survey has been questioned - particularly by fishermen.

Etheridge called it "bogus," wondering how there could be a 120 percent decline in harvestable crabs in just one year.

"The difference between the red king crab fishery (is that) we have a more formal management plan. We have a threshold of 200,000 pounds. That is the trigger point of whether we have a fishery or not," he said.

He also acknowledged that there was a difference of opinion between the department and some fishermen on whether a threshold number should be used to determine if a season should close.

Hebert said Fish and Game would prefer a cutoff number for all crab fisheries in Southeast.

"When you have something in regulation that says what the threshold is going to be, there isn't much question about what the management would be," he said.

Etheridge says it is wiser to consider shortening a fishery season, require fishermen to call in daily to check the allowable harvest, or limit quota allowed for personal-use fishermen.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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