By Laine Welch
The Bering Sea crab fleet was ready to head to the fishing grounds over the weekend after the government shutdown and unissued licenses stalled the Oct. 15 start of the crab season. Skippers of the 80 boats estimated the extra time tied up in Dutch Harbor cost them each $1,000 per day.
Meanwhile, the situation was even worse for small boat crabbers at Kodiak and the Westward region, who learned there would not even be a Tanner fishery come January.
“It is not unexpected,” said Mark Stichert, a shellfish biologist at Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. “We’ve been seeing a decline in abundance of legal sized or mature male Tanner crab for the last couple of years.”
The closure affects Tanner crab fisheries at Kodiak, Chignik and the South Peninsula. Stichert said the stocks have seemed to follow an up and down pattern since the late 1990s.
“Beginning in 2006/2007, we saw large recruitment of juvenile Tanner crab, and those crab subsequently matured into the population and into the commercial fishery beginning in 2009 through 2011,” Stichert said. “We had a couple of pretty large years and now those crab are aging out of the population. That’s what has led the decline and resulted in closures for next year.”
Those years produced region-wide catches of three to more than four million pounds; last January the harvest was less than one million pounds. The mid-January fishery is worth several million dollars to the coastal communities. Up to 40 Kodiak boats dropped pots for Tanners and 25 at the Peninsula during the 2013 season. Chignik has been closed for two years.
Looking ahead, Stichert said there is a mix of good and bad news.
“The bad news is we aren’t seeing any kind of continued recruitment in the near future for legal sized male crab. However, during the 2013 survey we just wrapped up, we did observe a fairly large pulse of juvenile crab in all three areas,” he explained. “So the good news is, the total number of crab in the water seems to be well above average. In fact, it seems to be one of the larger sizes of recruitment of juvenile crab we have seen in 10 or 15 years.”
Those Tanners are two to three years out from maturity and lots can happen between now and then.
“It’s definitely a bummer,” said Kodiak fisherman Tyler O’Brien. “Tanner crab is a nice shot in the arm for the smaller boats in the winter.”
Kodiak’s resident processing workforce will also feel the pinch of no crab coming into town.
Diving for dollars
Sea cucumbers are a popular delicacy dotting soups and salads throughout Asia. Right now 150 divers in Southeast Alaska are competing for a robust 1.5 million-pound cuke harvest.
“It’s actually the highest quota since 2000,” said Mike Donnellan, lead diver for ADF&G at Juneau.
Last year, the divers got nearly $5 for the one pound, red sea cucumbers plucked from the sea floor. That made the fishery worth $7.5 million at the panhandle docks. Kodiak is the only other Alaska region where a cucumber fishery occurs, albeit far smaller at 140,000 pounds. The 26 divers there are fetching $3.50 per pound for sea cukes; two dollars less than last year
Regardless, Lance Parker has dive-fished in Kodiak since 1986 and says it is — by far — his favorite fishery. “Everything I’ve done has been profitable and a blast, because the things I’ve gotten to see I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Parker said. “I think I have dived in every bay on this island for one thing or another, and the variety of bottom type and the surprises that you always see, there is always something to spice up the experience.”
Parker said a good day for him is diving around 35 to 50 feet, sometimes as long as eight to nine hours, day or night, plucking as many as 2,000 cucumbers per dive.
Jobs jump start
Students at the Southwest Alaska Vocational and Education Center (SAVEC) at King Salmon are getting on a training fast-track, thanks to a funding boost by local stakeholders.
The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation made a nearly $195,000 donation to fund a wide range of SAVEC training programs through December. Programs include everything from crane and small boat operation, to CPR and first aid certification, to marine safety instructors.
The funds will help leverage a $405,000 USDA Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge grant received in August by the Bristol Bay Native Association. It is the first of its kind awarded to a Native organization.
SAVEC was founded in 2002 as a nonprofit organization to provide career and workforce development training to the residents of Bristol Bay and rural residents from around the state.
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