Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Norton Sound CDQ Applauds Changes in Commercial Crab Guidelines

A community development quota association representing 15 villages in the Bering Strait region is applauding decisions made at the recent Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting regarding guidelines for the Norton Sound red king crab fishery.

A change made last summer in how the state Department of Fish and Game estimates the crab population in Norton Sound meant that commercial fishermen risked seeing their quota cut nearly in half this year. Despite all signs pointing to a healthy and thriving crab population, revising the estimate meant that either the commercial harvest or the rule that governed it would have to change if fishermen were going to be able to fish at levels they had for the past decade.

Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. officials said the state board put concerns of Norton Sound fishermen and processors at ease when it approved a proposal brought forward by NSEDC to change the rules and essentially keep the harvest at status quo.

“The red king crab population appears to be at a 20-year high in Norton Sound,” said NSEDC biologist West Jones. “Our rate of commercial harvest has supported a number of fishermen while allowing the crab stocks to enjoy slow, steady growth.”

To understand this change, it helps to understand how the current guidelines work. Each year, the level of the summer commercial harvest is set as a percentage of the legal male biomass, or LMB. The harvest guidelines for the past decade or so have capped harvests at 10 percent of this biomass. The state agency uses a model to determine LMB, which has found a biomass between 3 million and 4 million pounds for the past decade. This has resulted in harvests between 300,000 -400,000 pounds of crab.

Last year, the state Department of Fish and Game took another look at the model and concluded that their formula for estimating the crab population had been incorrect for the past decade, resulting in an over-estimation for all those years. That means commercial crab fishermen were actually harvesting at an approximate rate of 12 percent for the past decade, rather than 10 percent as was believed.

With the new model lowering the population estimate by about 1 million pounds, the 10 percent threshold would have taken a big bite out of the commercial harvest had it remained on the books. “The reduction in the crab biomass was purely due to changes in the model,” said Kevin Keith, a biologist with NSEDC. “The actual crab population in Norton Sound is doing quite well. All indicators lead us to believe that we have a stable or increasing population of crabs. It’s a wonderful resource.”

In spite of the stability of the crab population, changes in the model meant that the harvest level was going to be drastically reduced from the range of 300,000 to 400,00 pounds down to between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds.

Charlie Lean, NSEDC director of fisheries research and development, worked with the state agency to develop harvest guidelines for the summer commercial crab fishery, with included a 7 percent harvest limited at between 1.25 and 2 million pounds LMB, 13 percent harvest limit between 2 and 3 million pounds LMB, and 15 percent harvest limit above 3 million pounds LMB.

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