An outlook from state regulators on the future of Alaska's troubled king and snow crab fisheries won't please suppliers or buyers of the valuable shellfish.
Both red king crab and snow crab, which were closed to commercial fishing this year, are hampered by low recruitment in the fisheries, according to data the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) presented to the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) crab industry Nov. 10.
The data show a massive drop in juvenile male snow crabs starting in 2019, following a strong 2018 recruitment.
The net loss of juvenile males amounted to around 2.5 billion, according to the presentation. The low juvenile male population levels that have lasted into 2022 mean that without "meaningful recruitment, additional fishery removals can have a measurable negative impact on the population," according to the presentation.
Using data from a NOAA Fisheries summer bottom trawl survey conducted this year, the presentation showed it could take about four years to grow snow crabs once again to harvestable size.
ADF&G Area Management Biologist Miranda Westphal told IntraFish that for crab stocks, the department doesn't have "any type of forecast models."
But she said the statement about it being at least four years until there is a snow crab fishery "is more a reflection of what we know about snow crab biology and the approximate amount of time it takes for snow crab to grow from the size we first detect them in the annual summer trawl survey to the size where they are able to be retained in a fishery."
The presentation noted there is "lots of uncertainty related to cause of recent decline" and pointed to factors such as mortality versus movement, fishing behavior and Russia border issues as potential reasons.
"To me, this emphasizes the need for additional conservation measures and protections at the state and federal levels for snow crab to help this stock recover," Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen told IntraFish.
Bristol Bay red king crab
Things are not much better for the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which was also closed this year. While male recruitment has increased over the past two years, females remain below harvest strategy closure threshold, with a "low estimated recruitment."
"We are hovering around the female abundance closure threshold, but the stock has been on a decline since the mid-2000s, and we haven’t seen young crab enter into the population for over 10 years," ADF&G's Westphal said.
"Even if we are able to open a small fishery by regulation next season, it will likely have more to do with inter-annual variation in population estimates from the survey rather than an improvement in the health of the stock."
Westphal added the increase in legal size males the last couple seasons is more reflective of crab growing and aging, and that eventually those crab will age out of the population.
Much of ADF&G's focus in improving the king crab fishery includes protecting females, understanding critical spawning habitats and optimizing mating opportunities, according to the presentation.
In October, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced they would cancel red king crab fishing seasons in Bristol Bay and the Saint Matthew Island districts, as well as blue king crab fishing in the Pribilof and Saint Matthew Island districts. In addition, the agency closed harvesting for snow crab in the Bering Sea.
The Alaska king crab harvest is one of the most lucrative fisheries in the United States. Last year's closure resulted in an estimated loss of over $200 million (€181.6 million) worth of harvests, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Executive Director Jamie Goen told IntraFish.
The snow crab fishery's average annual harvest value is over $100 million (€102 million), according to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.