Crabbers report abundant bairdi after fishery's controversial closure

Mar 28, 2017

The Bering Sea b​airdi crab fishery stayed closed this year for the fi​rst time in four seasons. State biologists decided there were too fe​w crab to harvest safely, but fishermen are questi​oning that call. They say they saw plentiful bairdi while crabbing for other species.

Fishermen sort crab aboard the F/V Polar Sea. Captain Daher Jorge says they found plenty of bairdi crab in pots they set for Opilio.
Credit Daher Jorge

At a Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage this week, commissioners are looking into the possibility of opening the fishery even in low-abundance years.

The crew of the F/V Polar Sea stands at a metal table on the deck, sorting through a fresh pot of crab. They’re looking for Opilio keepers. 

Captain Daher Jorge rolls video on his iPhone and asks for a count. His crew tells him they've found 100 bairdi crab and 200 Opilio.

“This is not like we're faking it," says Jorge. "It is reality. It’s right there. This is not going to lie.”

Those 100 bairdi all go back in the ocean. Had the bairdi season opened, Jorge would have been able to sell them.

“It’s a no-brainer," he says. "Instead of throwing them over the side, why we can’t we put one species in one tank and the other species in the other tank?”

He says fishing both species would have reduced bycatch -- saving fishermen time and money, and saving the crab population a lot of incidental deaths.

His crew's experience in the ocean didn’t match predictions from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Miranda Westphal is the management biologist for the area. In October, she said the annual crab survey showed low numbers across the board for all species -- a trend she connected to warmer ocean waters.

“Everything's just kind of below threshold, and we're not seeing a whole lot of recruitment right now," she said. "It's sort of a theme this season.”

Managers reduced the quota for red king crab by 15 percent, cut the Opilio quota in half, and canceled the bairdi season entirely.

With crabbing season now wrapping up, Westphal didn’t want to comment on whether the quotas for bairdi, or any other species, were appropriate.

The F/V Polar Sea's Opilio crab catch is offloaded in Unalaska, after its bairdi bycatch has been thrown overboard.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

But Dave Harris thinks Fish and Game made a mistake. He’s captain of the F/V Arctic Mariner and has hauled pots in the Bering Sea for more than 40 years.

In that time, he says he’s never seen the department get the quotas so wrong. And not just with bairdi.

“You might see it in one fishery or the other, but not all three fisheries," says Harris. "Something's wrong with this picture. Something's wrong with the model or the surveys or something.”

Neither Jorge or Harris is able to attend the Board of Fisheries meetings in-person. But they’ve shared their thoughts, videos, and pictures in hopes of bridging the gap between what they’re seeing and what managers are documenting in their surveys.

The meeting agenda includes proposals that might open the fishery even when stocks are low or permit fishermen to keep some of the crab bycatch that's thrown back when the fishery is closed.

Because the Board of Fisheries works on a region-based schedule, the statewide king, Opilio, and bairdi crab fisheries won’t be on the docket again until 2019.