Quotas for Bristol Bay red king crab increased to 9.98 million pounds for the 2014-2015 season, up from 8.6 million pounds a year earlier, good news for harvesters of the fishery known as the deadliest catch.
But a technical memorandum on the 2014 Eastern Bering Sea Continental Shelf Bottom Trawl Survey, notes that 56 percent of the legal-sized male surveyed were new hard shell crabs and 44 percent were old shell and very old shell crabs, with the majority of old shell males caught in central Bristol Bay.
The older the crab get, the more infrequently they molt, and very old shell crab do not molt, creating a more inviting environmental for barnacles, who cling to the shell, and use their appendages to reach into the water column to draw plankton and detritus into the shell for consumption.
There have been a lot more old shell crab in the last couple of years, notes Bob Foy, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center Kodiak Laboratory.
Old shell and very old shell crabs are more likely to have an abundance of barnacles aboard their shells, making them a less than lucrative catch.
Anecdotal reports from fishermen, a few of which came to the attention of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Dutch Harbor, voiced concerns of high-grading, the dumping of large quantities of barnacled legal male red king crab.
While high-grading is not illegal, it is a cause of concern for state biologists, who were passing these anecdotal accounts to data collectors on board 20 percent of the vessels harvesting the crab.
Regulations dictate that processors must accept the king crab, even with barnacles from holders of A shares, the individual processing quota shares, but that they don’t have to accept B and C share with barnacles on it.
Jake Jacobsen, executive director of the Intercoop Exchange in Seattle, said that if the fishermen are getting a lot of dirty crab, they are asked by the coop to move to another area, but that all legal king crab landed onto a boat stayed on the boat.
The department has an interest in this, said Heather Fitch, an area management biologist at Dutch Harbor. “The extra mortality is not good for the stock.
“There is no regulation prohibiting high-grading specifically, but that is the excess removal of the stock, so it is counted in the acceptable biological catch.
“We discourage fishermen from doing so and discourage processors from giving incentives to do so.”
Due to extensive high-grading during the 2005-2006 season, the first year the federal crab rationalization plan was in effect, the state ended up reducing the total allowable catch of red king crab by 5 percent the following year, she said.
Harvesters were still engaged in the fishery in late October, with observers on board collecting data, and what data was available was considered preliminary, said Mary Schwenzseier, the state shellfish observer program coordinator at Dutch Harbor.
The jury is still out on whether the percentage of high-grading was more significant than usual this year, and what action the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will take.