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Crab crash controversy: did overfishing doom Alaska's king of crabs?

The late 1970s and early 1980s were heady days for red king crab fishermen plumbing the waters of Bristol Bay. A lucky few became instant millionaires, thanks to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the state's largest and most valuable crustacean.

At its peak in 1980, the bay's red king crab harvest was worth more than $115 million, second only to the combined value of all five species of salmon harvested in the state at the time.

But just two years later, the crab boom was bust. With just 3 million pounds caught, fishing was closed. Hundreds of jobs were lost, fishermen declared bankruptcy, and communities like Unalaska and Kodiak would be forever changed.

In the decades since, albeit with sparse evidence, scientists have almost universally blamed changed ocean conditions for the crab's demise. Warmer ocean temperatures, the conventional wisdom goes, created a new ecosystem regime in the Bering Sea, one dominated by huge populations of cod, pollock and flatfish. Crab stocks were less productive in the warmer water, and moved out of their traditional ranges. All the while, these new schools of predatory fish feasted on crab. Disease also took a toll, scientists believe. Against this backdrop, commercial fishing was merely a sideshow. But not everyone has bought into the conventional wisdom.

"Rubbish," said Braxton Dew, a crab researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. "If people begin to understand that it was man's fishing--as opposed to nature--that caused the red king crab collapse, then they may be more judicious in how they manage the stock. It's a problem of realizing that we may have been at fault."

Dew, together with NMFS colleague Robert McConnaughey, believes overfishing drove Bristol Bay's red king crab to near extinction. Their research was published last year in Ecological Applications, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the Ecological Society of America. Not surprisingly, Dew and McConnanghey's research had drawn sharp criticism from their peers.


Dew and McConnaughey believe the beginning of the end for Bristol Bay's red king crab came with passage of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The act Americanized Alaska's fisheries to 200 miles offshore, and gave birth to the massive U.S. groundfish industry, today worth more than $2 billion a year.

Dew said the act opened a gigantic swath southeast of Bristol Bay, called the pot sanctuary, to bottom trawling.

A region slightly larger than West Virginia, the pot sanctuary had been largely off-limits to trawling since the Japanese established it in 1959. Dew said Japanese research indicated the sanctuary served as a refuge for mature, egg-laden female red king crab.

The region also teamed with cod, pollock and flatfish. Bottom trawlers pushed to open the sanctuary, and in 1980--just one year before the Bristol Bay's red king crab catch tanked--the North Pacific Fishery Management Council opened the sanctuary to bottom trawling.

"The main goal at the time was to stimulate a groundfish fishery," Dew said. "If people were after cod, they may not think much of crab. In fact they may consider them merely pests in the way of a burgeoning fishery."

While trawlers chased groundfish in the newly opened sanctuary, red king crab stocks were mysteriously disappearing. Between 1976 and 1981, populations of adult female red king crab declined by 97 percent, according to Timothy Loher, a University of Washington fisheries scientist now with the International Pacific Halibut Commission. In all, some 83 million red king crabs simply vanished.

In their research, Dew and McConnaughey make the case that most of the missing crab were killed by the growing trawl fleet working the region. In 1980, trawl bycatch of crab in the Bering Sea/ Aleutian Islands soared 371 percent over the previous three years, according to their research. On paper, trawlers caught an average of 72,000 crabs each year from 1977-1979. In 1980, trawlers caught 341,000 red king crab. In 1981, they caught more than 1.1 million. Most of the 1980-81 bycatch was of mature female red king crab caught inside the pot sanctuary, according to Russ Nelson, deputy director, NMFS Fisheries Resource Assessment Conservation and Engineering (RACE) division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

But Dew said these numbers don't tell the whole story; trawlers likely caught far more crab than were officially reported.

"The official numbers are not just bogus, they are way low," said Dew. "The real (crab bycatch) numbers could be an order or two of magnitude higher than the numbers pumped out year after year. That means bycatch numbers could be off by between 10 million and 100 million crab."

Dew said official trawl bycatch figures are low because none of the catcher boats carried observers in those days, and only about a quarter of processor vessels carried observers. He said anecdotal evidence from fishermen and at least one observer suggests trawlers may have routinely hauled up so-called "red bags," trawl nets full of bright, orange-red king crab. Rather than deliver the crab to processors, fishermen dumped them. Dew believes trawlers may have killed enough crab to trigger the collapse of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery.

"The processors wanted ground-fish, so trawls loaded with crab were dumped back into the sea, with an unknown mortality associated with crab," Dew said.


While bottom trawlers scooped up crab by accident, crab fishermen pulled them from the sea intentionally.

For nearly a decade beginning in 1971, crab fishermen caught increasingly more crab each year. The catch topped out in 1980 at 130 million pounds. That year, crab fishermen removed an estimated 62 percent of the legal males.

But as fishermen were enjoying million dollar paydays, Dew said managers at the time missed or ignored signs of a looming disaster.

Among the warnings: Numbers of adult male red king crab had plummeted. By 1981, just 25 percent of remaining stock were males. Breeding-age female crab also had disappeared. Prior to 1980, 66 percent of the females were from multiple-age classes that had spawned numerous times. Surveys done after the crash failed to turn up these veteran spawners.

In 1982, fishermen landed just 3 million pounds of crab. The following year, Bristol Bay's red king crab fishery was closed.


While some crab researchers applauded Dew and McConnaughey for tackling the thorny issue of commercial fishing, others have landed on them like a 700-pound crab pot for what they see as serious flaws in the study.

Among the critics are Gordon Kruse. A former ADF&G fishery scientist, Kruse is now the President's Professor of Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

"Some of the issues they raise are worthy of consideration," Kruse said. "However, it's one thing to propose a hypothesis. In this case the authors came on rather strongly, almost advocating for a particular mechanism, when the available information is sketchy at best."

Gary Stauffer is the director of RACE division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. In other words he is Dew's and McConnaughey's boss. Stauffer said he had reservations about the research.

"The premise about red bags is basically developed from rumor, with very little documented evidence of that actually occurring," Stauffer said.

Jie Zheng is a shellfish scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said, in an e mail review of Dew and McConnaughey's research, that female red king crab had already started to move out of the sanctuary by 1977. That would seem to fit the notion that the regime shift, which nearly everyone agreed began in the mid-1970s, may have played a role in the disappearance of millions of the bay's red king crab, Zheng said. However, no studies were ever done to determine how the regime shift impacted the bay's red king crab.

"If the regime shift happened in 1976 or 1977, it doesn't fit with the disappearance of adult crab several years later when stocks were at record highs," Dew said.

Perhaps the most stinging criticism centers on Dew's claim that trawling bycatch doomed the bay's red king crab. Zheng said trawling couldn't have caused the crash because trawling didn't start in earnest inside the pot sanctuary until 1980.

"There are many problems with Dew and McConnaughey's paper," Zheng said in his review. "The most serious problem is that time and space are mismatched. If you take a very close look at the data ... the decline of (mature females) near the Unimak area pretty much occurred in the late 1970s when there was hardly any trawling within the pot sanctuary."

James Balsiger, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Alaska Region, takes the criticism further. In a December 2004 memo to the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Balsiger said most joint-venture trawling occurred east of the pot sanctuary in 1981-82, and therefore it was "particularly unlikely that JV fisheries were as important a cause of the decline ... as concluded by Dew and McConnaughey."

In response to their detractors, Dew said accurate numbers of red king crab trawl bycatch cannot be calculated because there isn't reliable observer data. But circumstantial and anecdotal evidence is strong and must be considered, he said. Tom Shirley, a fishery scientist formerly with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, agrees.

"What we have now is that in the absence of supporting data, fisheries are let off the hook," Shirley said from his new post at Texas A&M University's Harte Research Institute. "We know there was lots of bottom trawling on crabs and the researchers provide what substantiating data they have and suggest there is an alternative explanation. I thought their approach was refreshing."

At the end of the day, one thing seems clear in the debate over what caused the largest red king crab fishery in the U.S. to crash: all of the theories--overfishing, disease, predation, regime change--lack solid supporting data and remain largely unproven. While the debate likely will continue, real answers will probably remain elusive. So what's a fisherman to do? Forrest Bowers thinks they should look to the future.


"I think what's going on now is a lot more interesting," said Bowers, area crab management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska. "Right now we have abundance levels that are the highest since the early 1980s."

For the last five years, the bay's red king crab population has slowly increased. In 2005, some 61 million adult crab called Bristol Bay home, up by about 10 million crabs over the year before. The increase is good news for fishermen, who will have 18.3 million pounds of crab to harvest this winter. That's still well below the 33 million pounds landed in 1981, the year before the stock's collapse, but it's about three million pounds more than fishermen were allowed in 2004. If last year's average grounds price of $4.70 per pound is any guide, the catch may be worth some $86 million.

The 100 or so vessels taking part in the fishery will do so under new Individual Fishing Quota rules adopted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The season, which started Oct. 15 and runs through mid-January, marks the end of the free-for-all race to catch crab amid brutal winter storms and dangerous seas. Under the new system, fishermen harvest their quota at their leisure. The IFQ system is expected to reduce fishermen injuries and deaths.

The fleet also will be watched more closely than ever before. Bowers said 20 percent of the catcher vessels will have observers on board. Time and area closures, and no-trawl zones, are common in the southeast Bering Sea, and crab pots now have larger panels through which undersize crab can escape. Managers also have adopted minimum stock size thresholds, below which the crab season cannot be opened.

But perhaps the biggest lesson learned may be manager's willingness to err on the side of conservation. Gone are the days of 60 percent harvest rates. These days, fishermen catch only 10 percent to 15 percent of the mature males.

"We are managing the stock much more conservatively now, and in my mind the goal of that is to promote rebuilding," Bowers said.
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Author:Schneider, Doug
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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