Snow crab harvest slashed 40 percent

Crabbers’ fears of a diving quota came true with the third-lowest snow crab harvest limit since 2005.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, responding to a bleak biological outlook and questionable forecast model, knocked the harvest limit for Bering Sea snow crab down 40 percent on Oct. 8.

The total allowable catch, or TAC, is now 40.6 million pounds, a 27-million pound cut from last year. It’s the lowest since the 48.6-million pound harvest in 2010, and 21 percent less than the most recent 10-year average. Based on recent ex-vessel prices, the quota cut is worth more than $50 million.

The Community Development Quota, or CDQ, program, which allocates 10 percent of Bering Sea harvest to 65 villages within 50 miles of the Alaska shore, will receive 4 million pounds. The remaining 36.5 million pounds will go to the rest of the fleet.

Mark Gleason, executive director of industry group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, said the quota reduction is disappointing but that his group “live(s) and dies by the science” and will make due.

“If this is the TAC the science tells us the resource can sustainably support we stand by it,” said Gleason. “Now we need to concentrate on prosecuting the fishery in the most safe and efficient manner possible and hope for a good price.”

The quota cut represents nearly a third of the entire snow crab harvest’s value last year. Between 2005 and 2014, the average price for Bering Sea snow crab was $1.86 per pound. At 40.6 million pounds, it comes to $50.2 million, or 31 percent of last year’s harvest value.

In comparison to recent years, the value loss is even higher. Snow crab prices in the 2010s are the highest they’ve ever been; they haven’t dipped below $1.86 per pound since 2010.

To match last year’s value, crab prices would have to climb to unprecedented heights. Last year, snow crab’s $2.37 per pound netted $161 million. To make up that difference in the 2015-16 season, crab prices would have to climb to just under $4 per pound; the highest snow crab price ever was $2.54 per pound in 2011.

Even to match the 10-year average value, prices will have to remain at their current high, which is the second highest on record.

Between 2005 and 2014, the average harvest limit was 51.7 million pounds, making the average value of a snow crab harvest $96.2 million. To match this, this year’s price must stay at exactly $2.37 per pound.

Simon Kinneen, vice president of the CDQ group Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, said he’s hopeful the sudden slash in quota will have a corresponding price bump.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect some uptick in value associated with the reduction in quota,” said Kinneen.

The dramatic drop in snow crab quota corresponds to a problematic predictive model.

A yearly trawl survey assessment estimates the amount of crab in the sea, or biomass. To account for uncertainties in the area-limited trawl survey, scientists use different models to extrapolate overfishing limits and acceptable biological catch, from which the Alaska Department of Fish and Game derives the total allowable catch.

The Crab Plan Team, a group of stakeholders and scientists within the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, spent a large chunk of its September Seattle meeting fretting over inconsistencies in the modeling and survey numbers, an ongoing issue with snow crab management.

In the 2013-14 season, the biomass dropped to 279.9 million pounds. The overfishing limit, however, rose 22.6 million pounds.

The biomass for 2015-16 snow crab, as estimated by a trawl survey, is 271 million pounds compared to 284 million pounds last year.

The Crab Plan Team, however, accepted an estimate model that places the overfishing limit at 183.2 million pounds, along with an acceptable biological catch of 137.4 million pounds.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game cannot set the TAC greater than the allowable biological catch, and the Crab Plan Team changed the rubric for calculating that number.

Because of the disparity between the survey’s biomass estimate and the Crab Plan Team model’s overfishing limit, the team changed the formula for calculating the acceptable biological catch from 90 percent of the overfishing limit to 75 percent to result in the steep reduction.

The good news for crabbers is that the Bristol Bay red king crab harvest held steady compared to last year at just less than 10 million pounds, and tanner crab quotas are an increase versus last season. A total of 19.66 million pounds has been set between the eastern and western Bering Sea tanner crab stocks compared to 15.1 million pounds in 2014.

• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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