In a difficult decision, NSSP will not purchase crab in 2020 due to the stock’s reproductive failure
NOME—The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC) Board of Directors made a difficult decision at the 2019 4th Quarter Board Meetings in Nome to suspend Norton Sound Seafood Products’ (NSSP) Norton Sound red king crab buying operations for the 2020 winter and summer seasons. In the unprecedented decision, the board also voted to have NSEDC advocate to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and the Alaska Board of Fisheries to close the fishery for the 2020 fishing season for the preservation of the Norton Sound red king crab stock.
“We are going to see a decline in reproduction,” Northern Norton Sound ADF&G Advisory Committee Chair Charlie Lean told the board. “Trawl surveys can’t find male crab. Commercial and subsistence crabbers can’t find male crab. Female crab can’t find male crab. I am concerned.” In 2019, for the first time since 2012, ADF&G observer data showed there were more female crab with no or few eggs than there were with large clutches of eggs. Many females with no eggs indicate there aren’t enough male crab to fertilize females. Lean worked as ADF&G Nome Area Management Biologist for 15 years and assisted in management of the Norton Sound red king crab fishery in its early years. “The same situation happened in 1982 with the Norton Sound red king crab stock. Crab were overfished and the fishery crashed. It took 15 years for the population to recover. If we continue to make it worse, we could suffer for a long time,” he said.
ADF&G plans to open the 2020 Norton Sound Red King Crab fishery with an anticipated Guideline Harvest Level (GHL) of 170,000 pounds, an increase from last year’s quota. ADF&G’s current regional management expressed its reticence to alter the current harvest strategy or quota without seeing another year of harvest data. NSEDC’s biologists and board members believe the red king crab stock may not weather another year of commercial harvest.
Lean and biologists from NSEDC’s Norton Sound Fisheries Research & Development (NSFR&D) department fear another year of commercial fishing could put the fishery unacceptably at risk and have it face a similar fate to those crab fisheries that were wiped out in Kodiak, the Gulf of Alaska, and most recently for the St. Matthews Island blue king crab stock. These crashes were due to lack of conservative management action. “The department (ADF&G) is relying too heavily on the prediction of the Norton Sound red king crab model,” NSFR&D Director Wes Jones said. “They’re not looking close enough at all the other indicators that show a stock in stress.”
Historically, Norton Sound red king crab populations crashed in three other time periods since the fishery began in the late 1970s. In the last crab crash in 1999, it took three generations for the crab populations to recover. “There will be impacts of the 2019 crab fishery crash, but those impacts will be worse, and perhaps irreversible, if commercial fishing continues,” Jones said. “There are numerous examples from across the state that prove that crab stocks, once overfished, may never recover.”
The 2019 Norton Sound commercial red king crab fishery was devastating for regional fishermen, with 82,335 pounds harvested in the combined winter and summer commercial fisheries compared with an average harvest of more than
460,000 pounds the five previous years. With the 2019 GHL of 150,600 pounds, crab fishers fell far short of the expected harvest—and not for a lack of effort. Fishermen reported fishing in a 100-mile area, from the middle of the Norton Sound to west of Sledge Island and not finding crab or financially breaking even for the season.
“As staff we recognize this isn’t an easy or simple decision,” NSEDC CEO Janis Ivanoff said. “We realize there will be fishermen who would prefer to have the fishery open and try to earn some money. We’ve heard from our biologists that preserving the fishery and doing no further harm on the stock today could mean there’s a fishery in the future. We wish, as staff members, the local ADF&G management had taken steps and measures to preserve the fishery. At this time, this is the right step.”
“We’re trying to manage our operations in a timely manner, for Norton Sound fishermen and the organization,” NSEDC Vice Chair Dan Harrelson said. “We need to make our fishermen aware of our decision to not purchase crab, so they can transition to halibut or cod. I’d hate to say to fishermen on June 1 we’re not buying crab this year and not give them time to plan,” he said. “From the information we received, I’d rather err in favor of the crab population instead of a few hundred thousand dollars on what might make a poor fishery. There are not crab around, and I’m afraid we’re going to lose the resource.”
Moratorium instituted on all new loans for Norton Sound red king crab commercial fishers
With NSSP Norton Sound red king crab operations suspended for the 2020 winter and summer commercial crabbing seasons, the NSEDC Board of Directors also voted to institute a moratorium until further notice on all new loans for Norton Sound red king crab fishermen, including fishermen’s receivables, revolving loans, and large vessel loans.
NSEDC will also extend for an additional year the loan deferral or waiver options that were offered to Norton Sound red king crab fishermen in 2019, when it was determined that the low quota that year would have an adverse impact on the fleet.
If you have any questions regarding decisions from NSEDC’s 2019 4th Quarter Meeting, contact NSEDC Chief Operating Officer Tyler Rhodes at (907) 443-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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