Bairdi quota could increase again as busy season winds down

Ryan Fry sets up crab pots outside the F/V Farrar Sea in Unalaska earlier this month. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)
Ryan Fry sets up crab pots outside the F/V Farrar Sea in Unalaska earlier this month. (Annie Ropeik/KUCB)

Bering Sea crab fishermen are trying to get through as much Bairdi tanner quota as they can before the season ends next week.

This year’s huge allocation put the fleet in a time crunch — and future seasons could bring more of the same, thanks in part to a new preferred size for the species.

Download Audio

Crab fishermen are legally allowed to keep any Bairdi tanner crab over 4.8 inches. But their quota is based on something else: the size of crab that they prefer to sell.

Last week, the state Board of Fisheries unanimously agreed to change the preferred size limit for Bairdi in the fishery’s Eastern district, near Bristol Bay. It’s now 5 inches, instead of 5.5.

Ruth Christiansen works for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the co-op that devised the change. She says the industry started making this switch a couple years back, when Bairdi reopened after years of off-and-on closures. The transition started with the harvesters asking the processors:

“If we retain this crab, will you accept it and can you sell it?” she says. “And the processors said yes. … To my knowledge, over the last two seasons, there hasn’t been a processing company that hasn’t accepted the five-inch crab.”

Now, it’ll be part of how fishery managers set the quota for Bairdi.

“It’s how the total allowable catch is set — what the harvest strategy assumes is the size of retention,” says Doug Pengilly, a crab research coordinator for the state Department of Fish & Game.

He says the new assumption could increase the quota by as much as 23 percent. That could mean a lot of Bairdi on the table going forward — and this year’s high quotas have already put fishermen to the test.

Frank Kelty is the natural resources analyst for the city of Unalaska. With Bairdi on the rise, he thinks busier seasons could be the new normal.

“We’re facing a crunch, because the closure date for the Bairdi fisheries is March 31,” Kelty says. “So if you have snow crab quotas that are large, you’ve got part of the crab fleet that’s got to do pot cod, and then you’ve got a Bairdi season, it’s really crunch time to get it.

“I think you’re going to see more effort in October and November and fishing into December on Bairdi, trying to get the majority of that product before the first of the year when snow crab and other fisheries are taking place,” he says.

This year, high quotas meant the over-60-foot pot boat fleet, which normally spends January on Pacific cod, stayed focused on crab. That’s pushed cod season almost two months past its normal end date — and it’s put some of Unalaska’s processors in a crunch of their own, as they try to juggle species that don’t often overlap.

Those processors are also worried that the size change for Bairdi could create overlap at the grocery store. Don Goodfellow, the plant manager for Alyeska Seafoods, says a five-inch Bairdi is too close in size to a big snow crab. He thinks it’ll make it harder for consumers to tell the difference between the species — and easier for vendors to cut prices on Bairdi.

Goodfellow and others voted to oppose the size change at Unalaska’s Fish & Game Advisory Committee. But the measure wasn’t controversial when it passed at the Board of Fisheries.

Frank Kelty thinks it’s good news. He says Bairdi is facing some market uncertainty right now, after years of instability — but he thinks higher quotas will help fix that.

“If we have some steady years where we have some decent quantities of product, I think that market niche for Bairdi will come back again,” he says.

The crab fleet got through all 8.4 million pounds of Eastern district Bairdi this year — but they might not finish their 6.6 million pounds of quota in the West. At the rate they’re going, Kelty anticipates the fleet will leave a million pounds of Bairdi in the water for the 2014-2015 season. He thinks the industry might lobby to push the end date forward in the future.