Big back-to-back years renew talks of Kodiak Tanner crab protections

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The last two years have been big for Kodiak Tanner crab fishermen. Processors offered a record of more than $8 per pound back in 2022. And this year’s harvest levels were the highest they’ve been since 1986, making it the largest crab fishery in the state. But all that attention has also renewed discussions about how to best manage – and protect – the fishery going forward.

Back in January, boats sat on anchor waiting to offload their huge crab harvests at Kodiak processors – sometimes for a week or more. 

“There was just a lot of crab out there,” said Theresa Peterson, the fisheries policy director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. Her family has been fishing commercially in and around Kodiak for decades, including for Tanner. 

Boats wait on anchor with Tanner crab in Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor as fishing wrapped up in January, 2023 (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Kodiak’s Tanner crab population tends to fluctuate. But when numbers are good, the season opens in mid-January. More than 130 vessels participated in this year’s fishery. Peterson said it’s welcome work for skippers and crew.

“The Tanner crab fishery provides a really important source of revenue for small boat fishermen in the dead of winter when there’s really very little to no other fishing income opportunities,” she said.

That revenue was worth nearly $20 million to the local fleet this year – even with lower prices than anticipated that delayed the fishery’s opening. About 30% – 1.7 million pounds –  of the total catch ended up being processed off island because of price disputes with local canneries.

The available harvest was 5.8 million pounds. Combined with Chignik and the South Peninsula, 7.3 million pounds total were up for grabs in the Westward Region this winter. Biologists say the quota was likely the peak of a large crab cohort that was first observed back in 2018. The next few years will likely be good, too.

Peterson said the fleet is already banking on it, particularly as catch limits and prices have been cut in other areas.

“With the price of salmon that we’re looking at right now, the bright spot in our future is that crab fishery,” she said. “I think it’s going to be really critical in these next few years.”

The bulk of Kodiak’s Tanner crab is found on the eastside of the island. This year’s quota for Tanners on the eastside of Kodiak alone was 4 million pounds, and 99 vessels fished in that area. And an area known locally as the sandbox, or statistical areas 525702 and 52630, is a Tanner hotspot. It also overlaps with a federal groundfish fishery.

And that’s where things get complicated. Conversations about conservation in the sandbox have been going on for a while. 

“I’ve been trying to get Tanner crab protections for 19 years,” said Alexus Kwachka, the skipper of the fishing vessel No Point. He’s also a member of the Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative, which represents Tanner permit holders. He said bycatch is a main concern.

“As Tanner crab fishermen, we’re bearing all the burden of conservation. We want accountability on the interaction with other gear groups,” said Kwachka.

Kodiak-based bottom trawlers have fished for flatfish, like rock sole and arrowtooth flounder, in years past in and around the sandbox. The trawl fishery didn’t open the last two years. But this spring, they ran 13 trips to test the market. That’s also when biologists say crabs are in their vulnerable molt stage, and crabbers want more monitoring to make sure Tanner crabs aren’t scooped up as bycatch.

Right now, trawlers and fixed gear vessels in the waters off Kodiak are monitored for bycatch either by observers on board or electronically with cameras, which are on just a fraction of the time.

Julie Bonney is the executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, which represents Kodiak-based trawlers. She said it’s costly and takes time to implement monitoring programs. And right now, there’s not enough data to expand monitoring across the fleet.

“Let’s bring the information back, decide whether we have a problem and if we do, how we’re going to fix it,” she said.

Boats stacked with crab pots in Kodiak; January, 2023 (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Kwachka and a group of other fishermen asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to make changes. At the council’s meeting in June, they proposed a cameras-on-all-the-time policy known as 100% electronic monitoring for all vessels in the hotspot area. 

“With electronic monitoring, it kind of takes all that guesswork out of it,” said Kwachka. “If the cameras are on all the time, whether you’re a trawler or long liner or pot fisherman, it makes it so we can just do a better job.”

Peterson with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council also asked for expanded monitoring and data on crab bycatch.

It’s a familiar ask. More than a decade ago, the Council considered expanded monitoring at the sandbox, but it ultimately didn’t go anywhere. This time around, the Council didn’t approve more observers or monitoring either. But they did vote to gather and compare data from all gear groups in the sandbox. The Council’s motion also outlines looking at how crab populations have fared in areas that are already closed to bottom trawling around Kodiak.

Bonney, with the trawlers, said it’s a good starting point to balance everyone’s interests. 

“It’s a big deal to have all fisheries be successful,” she said. “From a small boat perspective, the Tanner crab fishery was really significant for those guys this year. I’m thankful for that. But as a trawl person, we want to have healthy flat fish fisheries and bottom fishing around the island, as well.”

Kwachka said he and other crabbers were frustrated that the Council didn’t go further, but he’s cautiously optimistic that the door is open to possible future action. 

Peterson, with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said the Council process is slow by design. She’s also encouraged by the June meeting. She said the fact that so many gear groups fish out of Kodiak should be a strength for future management – not a weakness.

“Kodiak’s a fishery dependent community reliant on all kinds of species, you know, salmon, halibut, sablefish, cod, herring, ground fish, crab, and working together, we can help to identify fishing patterns where you’re able to prosecute your fisheries without impacting another fishery,” Peterson said.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is set to pick up the discussion at its December meeting – just about a month before Kodiak crabbers will set their gear for the next season. 

Updated July 14, 2023

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