A group of crab fisherman met with Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials Tuesday as partners in a new tanner and king crab task force.
The goal of the nine-member advisory task force is to provide direction and help Fish and Game manage the commercial Southeast crab fisheries. Among the fishermen's concerns, and what dominated talk at the organizational meeting Tuesday, is the tanner crab sampling program being conducted by Fish and Game.
The department initiated a sampling program four years ago to try to assess the biomass of Southeast tanner crab stocks. The latest survey was done last month and showed a significant decline in the number of crab.
"It doesn't look great is essentially what this figure says," Gretchen Bishop told the group. Bishop is the management biologist for the $4.5 million Southeast tanner crab fishery.
Last year, fishermen netted 1.7 million pounds of tanner crab, well below the 2 million-pound Southeast quota. The closing price at Hoonah Cold Storage was $2.65 a pound last year, toward the higher end of the price range for the fishery, said General Manager Terry Barry.
The fishermen, representing the 93 crab-pot boat fleet, said they feel the department's sampling effort doesn't reflect the true biomass of the stocks. They complained that the time of year, areas sampled and tides were wrong for an accurate sampling.
Part of the task force's job is to work at having a survey that is acceptable to the fishermen and Fish and Game.
"We'd like to set some sort of a survey we feel comfortable with," Roger Gregg said at the task force meeting. Gregg is one of two fishermen representing Juneau on the task force.
The department is planning another sampling in January, closer to the season's scheduled Feb. 15 opening. The department will use the new survey to compare to the October sampling.
But regardless of what the survey shows, the program is still too young to get an accurate reading on the health of the fishery, said Doug Woodby, fisheries research coordinator for Fish and Game. Consistent and more data are needed before the information can be used to help set tanner harvest levels, he said.
Fish and Game hopes to get information from the fishermen to make the surveys reflect the crab biomass more accurately, he said.
"We need the fleet to be on board with what we're doing," Woodby said.
Crab catch quotas for some other crab fisheries are set by a combination of survey catch rates and fishery catch rates. Changing survey methods will lengthen the time before the survey results are reliable, he said.
Now, the fishery is regulated by the length of season. Season length is determined by estimating the amount of time the fleet will need to reach the guideline harvest level.
Over time the fishermen have become more efficient at catching crab, reducing the season to about a week, Woodby said.