Commercial quota owners benefiting from a harvest strategy implemented after fish stocks crashed in 1995 netted nearly 14 million pounds of Bristol Bay red king crab in the 2006/2007 season.
Indeed, the average number of legal crabs retained per lift of the huge pots during the 2006-2007 season was 34 crab, compared with a 1997-2006 average of 18 crab, and an average harvest of 11.7 million pounds.
That compared with the 2005/2006 catch of 16.5 million pounds of red king crab, with an average of 25 legal crabs retained per pot, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Still, all is not well in the lucrative king crab fishery, now famous nationwide and beyond because of the popular Discovery Channel series “Deadliest Catch.”
As the trawl survey gets underway in Bristol Bay to determine just how much crab the fleet will be allocated to harvest when the season begins Oct. 15, the debate continues over the benefits and disadvantages of the federal crab rationalization plan, which went into effect in the 2005/2006 season.
Proponents of the plan point to lives saved by slowing the fishery. Opponents point to hundreds of jobs lost and the effect on coastal village economies.
Supporters of the plan, including Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, speak of the benefits they say that crab rationalization has brought. The plan divvied up, based on the history of vessels, who would be allowed to catch how much of the allocated harvest. Processors also were allocated harvesting shares.
Thomson said that, so far, crab rationalization, also known in the industry as “crab ratz,” has resulted in no lives lost and no boats sunk since the program started. Proponents of the plan had argued that by guaranteeing individual quota share owners a percentage of the catch they could sit out the stormiest days and harvest their crab when the formidable Bering Sea was less treacherous.
Thomson said two other benefits of crab rationalization have been that processors and brokers are starting to put up new products, including fresh, iced crab shipped to markets in the Lower 48, and slowly developing stewardship of the resource.
“We’re changing our behavior about fishing, reducing handling mortality at the time we are sorting crab on deck,” Thomson said. “The harvesters and processors worked together this last king crab season to reduce the discards.”
Thomson acknowledged that in the first season of crab rationalization there was high-grading, with some crews sorting through legal king crab and discarding some of them in the sea, keeping only what they thought were the most valuable crab.
When state fisheries officials calculated the amount of high-grading, they slapped the fleet with a reduced harvest.
One of the tenets of the new harvest strategy is looking at fishing practices and bycatch in each fishery, said Forrest Bowers, area management biologist for shellfish for the state of Alaska in Dutch Harbor. “If we feel there is bycatch mortality occurring that was not included in development of our strategy, we will account for it during (total allowable catch) setting,” he said.
Of crab discarded over the side of vessels, there is a 20 percent mortality rate, he said.
The fleet responded to the criticism of state statistics and conservationist protests by vowing to halt high-grading.
“There was a single price negotiated for all legal crab between harvesters and processors last fall,” Thomson said. “That was a real indicator of stewardship. And we want to go further with that, applying it to snow crab and tanner crab.”
Overall, crab rationalization has definitely improved things in the fishery, Thomson said. “The intensity of the race for fish has gone away, but you do have to take into consideration that the program is in its infancy,” he said. “Generally speaking, it takes three to five years for a program of this sort to mature.”
Thomson also defended the processor quota shares, noting that no processor can process more than 30 percent of the product, except for snow crab in the northern district.
Critics: Rationalization has created more problems than it has solved
Critics of the crab plan, meanwhile, have not lessened their criticism after two seasons. They point to the diminished size of the fleet, from some 250 vessels to 87 last season, as quota owners took advantage of a plan to stack several quota shares on one boat.
“Out of about 1,500 jobs previous to rationalization, there are about 500 jobs left,” said Shawn Dochtermann, a veteran of more than three decades in pursuit of crab.
“I started fishing in 1978,” said Dochtermann, a Kodiak resident and secretary of the Crewmen’s Association. After 20 years fishing in the Bering Sea and more than 30 crab seasons fished in all, “I am one of the lucky ones who still gets the same compensation previous to rationalization. I fish for my father.”
Dochtermann said that while about one-third of the skippers and crews were able to keep jobs in the industry, the rest — many of them with 15 to 20 years experience in the crab fishery — had to find new jobs in other fisheries or other trades.
“The jobs that are available now are for a minuscule percentage of the compensation compared to the open-access fishery previous to rationalization,” he said.
Dochtermann also questions just how safe the fishery has become.
“Just because nobody has died doesn’t mean it has become a safer fishery,” he said. “Many crab fishers have come to me and said they have fished in worse weather than they have ever fished in the open-access fishery.
“Consolidation has made it available for less boats to fish for more crab, so the guys on deck have to fish for longer seasons, and the race for fish is the same as it was with open access,” he said.
Dochtermann also maintains that the high-grading continues.
“In the open-access fishery, we only had two kinds of crab,” he said. “We had a keeper, a legal-sized male crab that went into the holding tank. We had discards: females, sub-legal males or weak legal male crab that we didn’t want to put in the tank and take a chance of it dying and killing other crab with its bacteria.”
In the rationalized fishery, there is a third type of crab, the crab that is considered substandard and may get a lower price because of dirty or old shell, he said.
“We’re still high-grading,” he said. “When crab rationalization came in, the processors told us they were going to pay us less money for dirty crab.”
A rising tide
While the industry and the fishermen continue to argue over the crab rationalization plan, sales continue to improve for wild Alaska king crab, boosted in no small part by the “Deadliest Catch” series, and a depleted catch of Russian red king crab in the Barents Sea.
“The ÔDeadliest Catch’ has had a positive affect on the market,” Thomson said. “The general public has more of an appreciation of how difficult, how hard the work is, so now when they go to buy crab in the marketplace, they feel better about paying a premium price for it. That has been told to me by viewer after viewer after viewer.”
And pay they do.
The demand for king crab in retail stores and restaurants is year-round, said Rob George of The Crab Broker, a Las Vegas firm that ships crab all over the United States.
“The demise in the Barents Sea hasn’t affected us at all,” George said. “That’s not my customer base. My customers want Alaska king crab and they want good quality product.”
The Barents Sea crab had competed with wild Alaska crab at large national warehouse stores, where it was sold by the case.
George said he purchases all his crab in November from a single processing facility in Alaska. “I have customers that buy by the container, 36,000 pounds,” he said.
“Others order 25,000 pounds, or customers who take 2,000 pounds every two months. It’s the whole gamut,” he said.
And every year, the amount of wild Alaska king crab he purchases increases by 10 to 15 percent, “which is a lot of crab when you start talking 300,000 pounds to 400,000 pounds,” he said.
“Demand grows by word of mouth because we’ve got great crab,” he said. His philosophy, George admits, is “quality, quality, quality — give them service.”
George also admits to “probably having more passion for Alaska red king crab than just about anybody else in the industry.”
Last July he organized a tour for 45 chefs to the crab fishery in Nome, and in October, took another party of 35 to Dutch Harbor.
The tours proved so popular that George figures he’ll have even more chefs on board this year, and he’s excited.
“I want to see the whole deal,” said George, who plans to be on board the first crab boat out harvesting in Bristol Bay in October.
“I can watch it on TV, but I want to do it.”
By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce