Winter crab commercial fishery opens for Norton Sound

Norton Sound red king crab. (Photo by Jenn Ruckel/KNOM)
Norton Sound red king crab. (Photo by Jenn Ruckel/KNOM)

Norton Sound’s winter crab fishery finally opened Monday after poor sea ice delayed commercial crabbers for about a month.

Jim Menard is the area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said ice conditions are improving, but he doesn’t expect all fishermen to drop their pots immediately.

“It’s about half and half. Some are saying good pans are starting to develop and they want to get going. Others are saying they’re going to stay pat for a little bit and look at the situation,” he said. “This week I haven’t seen any open leaves outside my office window, so it’s maybe looking a little more promising out there.”

Menard said the wait won’t make much of a difference for the overall harvest. After catching nearly 100,000 pounds of red king crab in last’s year record-breaking season, a new quota will close the fishery this year after just 41,376 pounds.

With breakup starting sooner, the Board of Fisheries set the quota to stop fishermen from losing their pots at the ice edge and harming the environment with ghost fishing. Menard said Norton Sound crabbers have lost about 100 pots a season for the past few winters.

Part of the problem is that fishermen have been able to drop as many pots as they like. Next winter, they’ll be limited to 20 each, but Menard said the successful fishery led some crabbers to drop as many as 60 pots last year.

“It’s definitely taken off with the increased price of crab,” he said. “When it starts getting over $7 a pound for crab, we have a lot more participation.”

Regional buyer Norton Sound Seafood Products (NSSP) paid out nearly $300,000 to a record 44 permit holders last season. While the new quota will rein in profits this year, Menard said NSSP is ready to buy.

So far, only 12 fishermen have picked up a permit this winter. Menard said that number should grow as the ice improves and the fishery hits its peak harvest in March.