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Record Sea Ice Hinders Opilio/Snow Crab Harvest

Apr 22, 2012

When the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) snow crab quota was announced last October, crabbers in the Bering Sea were thrilled to see a 64% increase over 2010/2011. But the joy of October has given way to the painful reality of winter. This years Bering Sea ice coverage is breaking all records and wreaking havoc with the snow crab fishery. Temperatures have been extremely cold, between 11-14 degrees below normal. These cold temperatures have combined with consistent Northerly winds, which have moved the sea ice south along the Bering Sea shelf. When both the temperature and wind are factored in, this winter has been one of the worst in regards to sea ice since the fishery was first commercialized in the early 1980’s.

According to forecaster Becky Legatt with the National Weather Service, “looking at our records that date back 27 years, if you’re looking at the records from January to the end of February, this is the most persistent ice pack we’ve had at St. Paul and St. George.” In addition to the persistence of the pack, the ice edge is much thicker than in years past, reaching up to 2 feet in places. And finally, with the ice moving south more than 50 miles in a single day recently, the opilio fishing grounds have been basically shut down for much of the past 3 months, with ice-free fishing opportunities few and far between. This is particularly unfortunate as winter/early spring is the prime snow crab season.

And if the cold conditions and loss of prime fishing grounds are not enough, sea ice in the Pribilof Islands has effectively shut down a key processing plant located in the harbor at St. Paul Island as well. This has put both harvesters and the crab-dependent community of St. Paul in a tough situation. Crab harvesters are required by regulation to deliver a portion of their catch to St. Paul. And the residents of St. Paul depend on the income these deliveries bring to the Island. Considering the remoteness of St. Paul, there is little economic opportunity for local residents in the winter other than the snow crab fishery.

There is one bright spot however. When crabbers have been able to find favorable “weather windows” to fish, they have found excellent fishing. At times, catch rates have exceeded 500 legal crabs per pot. So there is no question that the crab are there and the resource is healthy. The hard part is finding grounds that are ice-free enough to go fishing. Crabbers are hoping for an extended period of Southerly winds to push the ice pack north and provide these sustained harvest opportunities. However, the clock is ticking! With the season scheduled to end on May 31st, that doesn’t leave much time to catch the remainder of the quota. As of mid April, about 70% of the quota has been harvested. Normally at this time of the year, crab harvesters are getting ready to participate in their summer fisheries and have left the opilio grounds behind. But this season has been far from normal and the fleet will be scrambling to get the quota caught in time for the regulatory closure scheduled for the end of May.
One big change that is working in the crabbers favor is the catch share program that has been in place since 2005. Under the Rationalization program, as it has become known, crab quota is allocated to individual fishermen before the season starts. Crabbers have also been given the opportunity to form cooperatives and transfer quota among cooperative members in order to more efficiently and safely catch the quota. This ability to “stack quota” may be the best hope the crabbers have to catch the quota before the season ends. Crabbers are now able to work cooperatively to maximize the catch. In the pre-Rationalization “derby days” all of the boats competed against one another in a “race for fish.” In many years this “race,” and the ensuing chaos it caused, led to crabbers catching more crab than the quota would allow. This put unnecessary pressure on the resource. But more than that, it caused crabbers to take the kind of risks that earned the fishery the title of “the Deadliest Catch.” In an effort to catch more crab than the next guy, vessel owners would overload their boats with crab pots and fish in any kind of weather. Often the freezing spray that is common in the Bering Sea in winter would lead to boats capsizing and lives being lost. Since the Rationalization program came into place, crabbers don’t need to take such extreme risks. And that is probably the most important thing. Even if some of the quota is not ultimately caught due to conditions on the fishing grounds and issues related to harbor access at St. Paul Island, all of the men and women who participate in the fishery will come home and live to fish another day

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