Persistent Ice Slows Snow Crab Season

Record-breaking ice in the Bering Sea continues to take a toll on the snow crab industry. Crabbers, processors and regulators met last week to discuss the possibility of extending the season. The inability to forecast the ice has everyone frustrated.

Last week marked a new low point for the Bering Sea snow crab fleet. With sea ice covering most of the fishing grounds and more than half of the fleet tied up in harbor, boats only managed to deliver one and half million pounds of crab. That’s the lowest weekly delivery so far in what’s already been an unusually slow season.

Although fishing did pick up over the weekend, the surge in activity might be short-lived. The extended forecast is calling for ice to cover the entire Bering Shelf – including most of the crab grounds – by the end of the week.

That doesn’t bode well for crabbers harvesting the remaining third of the snow crab quota by the time the season ends on May 31.

One possibility discussed at last week’s meeting was extending the snow crab season into June. Crabbers have been pushing the idea for several months now, but processors are less enthusiastic and Fish and Game is waiting to see how things play out.

“Our first option would certainly be to have the season done by the end of May,” says shellfish biologist Wayne Donaldson.

He says Fish and Game is concerned that extending the season will interfere with the snow crab molting and mating period. They’re also worried that it could affect the overfished tanner crab species. But Donaldson stresses that any extension is purely hypothetical at the moment.

“We’re still in the monitoring mode, just assessing the ice reports as they come out three times a week, trying to keep a handle on what the weekly harvest rate is. We still hold out some hope, although that hope seems to be diminishing by the week, that we could take the TAC by the end of May.”

The forecast isn’t promising. National Weather Service ice forecaster Kathleen Cole says the long-term outlook is for ice covering the fishing grounds until mid-May and she says even that might be optimistic.

“I will update this at the beginning of next month and as I look at it now, I see some areas where I think I’ve maybe gone a little bit too far, but I also see areas where I may not have gone far enough. In fact, the last ice to St. Paul is one that I’m thinking I may need to extend.”

That uncertainty makes the crab fleet nervous. As one crabber said at last week’s meeting, it’s hard to catch crab if you’re constantly running from the ice.

“All we need is some southerly winds, sustained southerly winds, but right now the next week doesn’t look very productive. So, unfortunately, we’re in a tight spot here: we just can’t get to where we need to get to. So, that’s just the way it is, I guess.”

The uncertainty for crabbers won’t resolved for another few weeks. Fish and Game has said it won’t decide until at least the end of the month whether to extend the snow crab season.

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