Local Tanner crab vessels steamed out of Kodiak and Old Harbor on January 18th, with high hopes for a successful crab season. We always leave that way, full of hope. Why else would we keep going out?
The winter Tanner crab fishery is somewhat unique in that it was designed with input from the community-based fleet. Fishermen wanted managers to factor in safety, equity, and conservation into how the fishery operates.
One way managers do this is by using the weather to dictate openings. If the daily weather update for the fishing grounds includes a gale warning, managers delay the fishery for 24 hours. Doing so provides for greater safety and equity in the fishery, as it is dangerous for smaller vessels to travel in rough weather with crab gear on their decks. While it may be an uncomfortable ride for an 80-foot vessel carrying 20 heavy crab pots out to the grounds, it is rarely life threatening. However, for a 42-foot shallow draft seiner, like our boat, it is life threatening and we would have to stay in town. Thus, without the weather stand down, the fishery could be harvested with by a handful of larger boats while the rest of the fleet is tied to the docks. Working together, the fishermen came up with a solution. This year, the season was delayed for three days due to gale winds clocked at up to 106 knots.
The fishery was also designed with input by fishermen to have a minimal impact on Tanner crab stocks. Crab pots can only be hauled from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, thereby reducing the mortality of discarded crab—those that are undersized or female. Minimizing the number of times a pot is hauled and therefore how often crab are handled reduces stress on the resource. The daylight-only requirement limits the exposure of discarded crab to colder temperatures in the night. Vessels are also limited to 20 pots, depending on the total allowable catch of crab, which serves to both minimize the impact of the gear on the crab and level the playing field. When the allowable harvest goes up, so does the number of pots the fishermen can use. When the total allowable catch is under 2 million pounds, the limit is 20 pots; as that catch rises, the number of pots allowed stair-steps all the way to 60 pots (when the allowable catch is over 5 million pounds. This year the total allowable catch for the Kodiak Island district is 400,000 pounds, and after a four-year closure due to low crab abundance, fishermen are supportive of the limit and just happy to be fishing.
In a town like Kodiak, which is sustained by fishing, there are few opportunities to make a living other than commercial fishing. As community-based fishermen dependent on the health of the fisheries resource to make a living, many fishermen advocate in the fisheries policy arena in support of sustainable fisheries and opportunities for the next generation. We work hard to share both our experience and knowledge of the industry with management bodies like the Alaska Board of Fish and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Both of these bodies are set up to provide stakeholder input, and policy makers value the contribution of the fishermen to inform decisions. This process, coupled with the influence of strong science, has led to the world-class, sustainable fisheries that are found throughout Alaskan waters. I’m proud to call this state and Kodiak Island my home, and will continue to advocate for policies that sustain the stocks and provide other families the opportunity to make a living from the sea.