Tanner Crab Fishery Closed for 2014 Season

Map from Alaska Department of Fish & Game.
Map from Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

State officials announced this week that the tanner crab fishery would not open for the 2014 seasons in the eastern Aleutian Islands. But Unalaska’s small boat fishermen think they’ve found a way to expand the fishery — in an area that’s been closed for two decades.

Unalaska’s tanner crab fishery opened up for the first time in years in January 2013, only to be shut down again for the upcoming season.

State area management biologist Heather Fitch says fisheries can be unpredictable, but in this case, the problem could be in the management.

“Our surveys kind of seem to not necessarily line up. One section’s open one year, it’s closed the next,” she says. “We want to have a better idea of what’s going on.”

Right now, the Department of Fish and Game relies on trawl surveys to keep tabs on crab stocks. State biologists compared the results of this year’s surveys to decade-long averages.

Photo by Jan Haaga.
Photo by Jan Haaga.

The results varied in the three areas where the tanner crab fishery is located. In Akutan, the number of mature male crabs was far below the legal threshold to open the fishery. In Unalaska and Skan Bay, there were enough mature males to satisfy that requirement — but not enough that fishermen could make their quota without depleting the stock.

Fitch says the crab that’s out there now might be ready to harvest in a couple of years.

“From what it looks like through the rest of the survey, it looks like there’s a big incoming recruit class, so my feeling is if you wait, like, two years, you’ll see them before they come into the fishery — maybe a year, maybe two,” she says.

But local fishermen don’t want to get stuck in a cycle of closures and openings. Instead of waiting for these tanner crab stocks to stabilize, they’re looking for a new area to fish.

Beaver Inlet has been closed to fishing for about 20 years. Fitch says trawl surveys there don’t produce good results.

Zac Nehus is a small boat fisherman and a board member of the Unalaska Native Fishermen’s Association, or UNFA. He says there’s enough crab in Beaver Inlet to support a new fishery, if you know how to look for it.

“It’s kind of our belief that they’re just not seeing the tanner crab, and that’s why a pot survey is needed where you can access these deeper depths and these areas where tanners reside,” he says. “And if we can show that there’s a harvestable biomass there, then maybe we can have a fishery there in the future like we’ve had in other areas around the island.”

Ten members of UNFA met Monday with Heather Fitch to talk about the fishery closure and their pot study idea. They voted to look at sending one boat out next August to do the study. The boat would throw back all the crab it caught, rather than selling them.

Nehus says they’d hoped to do the study this season, but he says August works too — the weather is good and the crab is of legal size, but there’s not much meat on it. He says they want to do the first survey by 2015.

“Once the process is in the works, maybe then you’re able to do it every two years or every three years, and you start to have data to compare against,” he says.

And that’s data that could help the state improve how it manages the fishery as a whole. But those kind of changes are a ways off. There still won’t be a tanner crab season this January.

Nehus says the closure of the Unalaska section, the most active of the three, is more of a loss for the community than it is an economic blow.

“It’s a fun fishery to do,” he says. “A lot of the locals are able to participate with small boats, especially when it’s in Unalaska Bay. Friends go out together, and yeah, maybe they don’t make a lot of money, but people enjoy it.”

He says while the fishery is closed, they’ll focus on getting state approvals for the pot study and finding out how much UNFA would have to pay for it.