Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Crabs hard to find: Steven Merculief cleans cooked king crab Monday at the Taku Smokeries/Fisheries plant. The Southeast Alaska king crab fishery opened last week and crabbers have been having trouble finding the big crustaceans.
Fishing has been unusually slow on the commercial red king crabbing grounds around Juneau this fall.
But Juneau crabber Al Morin said despite a slow start, the crab fleet's success rate around Juneau is now improving.
At $45 to $50 per specimen, the red king crabs are worth a little wait and frustration, Morin said.
"It's still a viable fishery for sure," Morin said.
The Southeast Alaska-wide red king crab fishery opened Nov. 1 after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut it down last year due to poor results in its 2004 crab population survey.
Southeast Alaska crabbers were outraged by the closure, claiming that Fish and Game's counting method led to artificially low results.
An independent review of the state's red king crab fishery survey methods by three scientists is nearing completion, according to Kyle Hebert, the department's regional marine fisheries supervisor.
This fall, tensions between the crabbers and the department appear to have abated.
Some crabbers were pleased with Fish and Game's decision to reopen the fishery, though they still question the department's survey methods. The fishermen also said they are satisfied with the department's overall management of the fishery this fall.
"(We) are much happier," Morin said.
At least initially, though, the slow crabbing around Juneau was worrisome for fishermen, state biologists and Juneau seafood processors.
When harvest levels are down, there isn't much volume to run through a plant and it hurts efficiency, said Eric Norman, general manager of Taku Smokeries/Fisheries in downtown Juneau.
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
"We were trapped in a slower dynamic. ... Unfortunately, we were here all weekend but didn't accomplish much," Norman said.
In the other areas in Southeast Alaska, fishermen reached their guideline harvest level in the usual amount of time - three or four days.
Only about 45 percent of the 59,000-pound quota for the Juneau area had been caught as of Sunday night, six days after the Nov. 1, opening, said Juneau area shellfish biologist Gretchen Bishop.
"It is cause for some level of concern," Bishop said, saying that fishermen had no difficulty reaching the red king crab quota for the Juneau area in 2003.
Some fishermen speculate that extreme 20-foot minus tides in the first week of November may have caused the crabs to "hunker down" to protect themselves.
The crabs weigh virtually nothing in the water and strong currents can blow them into places where they are more susceptible to predators, such as halibut, Morin explained.
So far though, state biologists say they don't have a simple explanation for the season's slow crabbing around Juneau.
"We're keeping our eye on things at this point," Bishop said.
The total allowable catch for red king crab in Southeast Alaska this fall is 200,000 pounds, valued at about $1 million for the fleet.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.