Most areas in Southeast closed to commercial fall fishing for Dungeness crab on Nov. 30.
The State has crunched the numbers and the season was below average in both harvest and participation.
First, the numbers. The harvest was 547,000 pounds. That’s less than the five-year average of 715,000 pounds. This fall’s harvest is 17 percent of the year’s total harvest which is about 5 percent less than what it’s been recently.
The participation was also down. 118 permit holders participated in Southeast which is about 20 less than last year. And it’s far less than the state biologists were expecting.
Kellii Wood is a crab biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She says they don’t know why so few Dungeness crab were harvested this fall. There are many unknown variables such as molt timing, the fact that not all females reproduce annually and predator-prey interactions.
“It’s hard to say,” Wood said. “We don’t have a stock assessment survey.”
Such a survey would give scientists a better idea of how many crab might be available for harvest in a given year. But with the state budget the way it is there’s not much hope that such research would be funded anytime soon.
District 6 saw the largest harvest of the fall fishery, which includes Duncan Canal, the Wrangell Narrows and portions of Sumner Strait. Fishermen there brought in over 65,000 pounds. District 11 was next with over 61,000 pounds. That includes Seymour Canal and the back side of Douglas Island. District 15 brought in about 56,000 pounds which includes Upper Lynn Canal and Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets.
Prices were similar to last year’s averaging $3.03 per pound. The value of the fall fishery was $1.7 million.
Adding the fall harvest to the summer harvest, you get 3.24 million pounds. That’s about a million pounds short of what biologists expected (4.3 million).
But not hitting the mark isn’t that unusual, said Wood. After all, what is expected is a fluctuating population.
Dungeness crab are on a four to five year life cycle and the commercial fishery sees the population fluctuate accordingly.
Last year’s record Dungeness crab fishery was part of another apparent cycle.
“It seems like every eight to 10 years we have a big pop in harvest,” said Wood.”And then it gradually goes down and then it will come up a little bit and then goes down and then it will be a big pop again.”
“So last year might have been the big pop?” I asked.
“We had a big pop last year, yeah,” Wood said.
Without a stock assessment the state department uses estimates based on this formula: the first seven days of the summer season’s landed poundage and the number of permits that made landings in the first seven days of the summer season and then a ratio between the catch for the first seven days of the previous season to the total catch for the previous season.
“And we put that into our regression model and out pops our estimate for the year,” Wood said.
Which she said is fairly accurate.
Although it wasn’t exactly predicted this year’s lower harvest had been seen before.
“It’s cyclical,” said Wood. “It’s similar to the fall harvest in 2010 and ’11, it’s almost identical.”
And although this fall’s harvest and effort is significantly lower than last year–like about half the harvest—Wood said last year was unusually good. 974,000 pounds were hauled in last fall which was the third highest harvest on record.
So, while they weren’t the best numbers this year it may feel even worse following such a top year.
“When you’re comparing it to the previous year, that’s tough,” Wood said.
A few areas in Southeast still remain open to Dungeness crab fishing: Districts 1 and 2 and Section 13-B which close on February 28. Then the commercial fishery will remain closed until the summer season starting June 15.