For generations, Alaskan families have built their livelihoods on harvesting crab in the renowned Bering Sea. Fishermen known as “Bering Sea crabbers” go out in treacherous and sometimes deadly conditions to catch a quota that is set in place by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This quota provides a profitable allotment while also conserving the crab population.
However, the disastrous cancellation of not only the Bering Sea king crab season for the second year in a row but also the highly profitable snow crab season for the first time has left fishermen in shock and looking for answers. Bill Prout, captain of the Silver Spray fishing vessel in Kodiak Island, stated, “This historic move will not only cause families to go bankrupt but also hurt Alaska’s economy.” It will cost $500 million in estimated losses for crew, communities, and processors.
The season for Bairdi crab will remain open, but the allotment will be so small that crabbers will have to face the tough decision of whether it is worth it to go out and harvest. With the high price of fuel and reduced allocation allowed by the state, skippers and owners will have to consider consolidating their shares onto another vessel other than their own.
Bering Sea crabbers had pressed the North Pacific Fishery Management Council during its October meeting to do more to reduce the impact of vessels that comb the ocean floor for fish and catch crabs incidentally, but no significant action was taken. Their inaction may have caused the disappearance of the crab species. The council regulates federal fisheries, including addressing habitat concerns and setting catch limits.
The fisheries are under a highly sophisticated management system, yet the crab species have drastically decreased under the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s watch and the management practices put in place by the state.
A New Low
“This is the first time a rationalized fishery has seen species collapse,” said Director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Jamie Goen. A rationalized fishery is managed by the state and federal government, which offer a preset allotment to the fishermen depending on species abundance.
What caused the crabs’ disappearance? Some point to global climate change, while others say there was a mass exodus. Scientists have no definite answers.
This comes after Alaska experienced a record $280 million king crab season in 2016, as well as researchers indicating a plentiful population of juvenile snow crab in 2017 and 2018, per the summer trawl survey that is conducted annually to determine the health of crab stocks and other species.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has canceled the seasons out of concern for the snow crab population’s continued decline for a second straight year. Per the survey results, mature male snow crabs have decreased by an additional 22 percent this year. Last year’s total allowable catch was set at 5.6 million pounds, making it a 90 percent cut to the lowest level in 40 years.
Generational Businesses Will Shut Down Forever
To put this devastating loss into perspective, there are approximately 60 vessels that fish for three highly desired crab species: king crab, snow crab, and Bairdi. Crabbers use steel pots placed in various areas across the Bering Sea to trap the crab and harvest them in the winter months. Each boat employs around seven people, and each crew member is depended on by a family of three to four others, meaning each boat provides the income to sustain nearly 30 family members. The impact of this closure will not just affect the crew. These boats are often family-operated, generational businesses that are going to be forced to shut down forever, leaving crewmembers and skippers scrambling to keep families afloat.
“Many members of Alaska’s fleet will face bankruptcy, including second-and third-generation crabbers whose families are steeped in the culture of this industry,” said the Alaskan Bering Sea Crabbers in a statement. “Long-time crew members who have worked these decks for decades will be jobless.”
Alaska’s Major Industry
One of Alaska’s main industries is fishing and the crab industry produces the highly sought-after king crab. King crabs weigh on average 8 pounds and snow crabs weigh approximately 1.5 pounds. Overall, Alaska produces two-thirds of the nation’s seafood.
The seafood industry includes companies such as Trident Seafoods, which employ thousands of skippers and crew across the state fisheries and seafood sectors and 27,000 seafood-processing employees, totaling more than 60,000 workers in Alaska each year.
According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s report, the Alaskan seafood industry creates more than 100,000 full-time jobs, $6 billion in annual labor income, and a whopping $15 billion in economic output. Alaska contributes 6 percent to the world’s supply of crab. Alaska seafood is sold in 100 countries around the world and is the state’s top export by far, topping $3 billion annually.
Government Must Act Quickly
In agricultural disasters, there is immediate assistance and media coverage because the economic toll would damage the country and have worldwide implications. The Bering Sea crabbers deserve the same.
“What the crab industry is facing is heartbreaking and what’s worse is that it is unnecessary. It didn’t have to be this way,” said Goen. “The crab will eventually bounce back and could do so sooner if the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had taken steps to protect the stock, as requested by the fishermen themselves.”
The federal government as well as the state of Alaska must work quickly to provide disaster relief to the crab industry, which can take years to obtain even after appropriation. In a disaster to the fishery such as this year, the long wait time to obtain the funds highlights the brokenness of the system designed to help those who are affected.
The federal government has already appropriated the funds, but the process must be expedited to get the money in the proper hands. Families involved in the crab industry are depending on the continuation of their careers in the fisheries while they wait out these low abundance and closed years.
The Bering Sea crabbers are long-time, experienced stewards, but the question of their legacy enduring is looking bleak. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council must take action so that future generations may still have the opportunity to fish crab in a state where it was once king.