Bering Sea crabbers feel like they've been “rammed” by Congress, even though what they really need is the reopening of RAM — the federal Restricted Access Management program -- so they can fish in time to sell on the lucrative Japanese New Year's market.
Tuesday’s scheduled opening of the valuable Bristol Bay red king crab season could be delayed because of the shutdown of federal agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Service's RAM program, which issues individual fishing quota permits.
"We're pretty concerned about it," said crab fishermen's representative Jake Jacobsen of the Inter Cooperative Exchange (ICE). "We can't set pots until we have an IFQ permit on board the vessel." He hopes the RAM staff in Juneau will soon be "unfurloughed."
Nov. 12 king crab deadline
Jacobsen fears a prolonged shutdown of the IFQ fishery could cause a price drop because much of the crab is sold in Japan for New Year's events. He compared the king crab's central role in Japanese New Year celebrations to the importance of the turkey at domestic Thanksgiving dinners. The product needs to be en route to Japan by Nov. 12, to meet the holiday demand, he said.
Alaska crab fisheries are actively managed by a state agency, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which sets harvest limits and monitors the catch until announcing a closure. The federal agency's role is small, but critical.
"Due to the shutdown of the federal government, NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) has announced that the issuance of individual fishing and processing quotas may be delayed," said Heather Fitch, a management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in an announcement of the quota for the 2013-14 season.
That announcement did contain some good news for fishermen chasing the big red crustaceans. Their quota is up 9 percent to 8.6 million pounds -- the first substantial increase in three years. However, Fitch cautioned against being too optimistic about Bering Sea king crab. The summer's trawl survey didn't find many so-called "recruits"-- or young crab reaching the legal size limit. The survey was conducted during the summer by two trawlers, the Alaska Knight, and the Aldebaran, she said.
"Who knows what it will look like next year," Fitch said.
Last season's average weight was 6.78 pounds per crab, up from 6.1 pounds the previous season, Fitch said.
Of the 8.4 million pounds of king crab taken, 90 percent (or 7.74 million pounds) are under Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), while 10 percent (or 860,000 pounds) are owned by six community development quota groups representing western Alaska communities.
So so-called CDQ groups include the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, and the Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association. The two Pribilof Islands are served by different CDQ groups, with APICDA covering St. George, while the larger community of St. Paul has the only single-village group, the CBSFA.
"Community development quota permits are issued by ADF&G and therefore will not be delayed," Fitch said.
Fish and Game’s Director of Commercial Fishing Jeff Regnart said the state will still open the crab fishery as scheduled at noon Tuesday. That will at least allow the harvest of CDQ crab, he said. "Whether the feds will have their act together, we don't know."
No permit, no fishing
National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement agent Matt Brown said Tuesday in Juneau that unless the RAM office reopens, anybody fishing IFQs without a permit is breaking the law.
"If you don't have a permit, you don't have the ability to fish legally," Brown said. "If people are upset, they should contact their congressmen."
Jacobsen said that negotiations with crab buyers are continuing, and that a price has not yet been set. Last season's average price was $8.08 per pound paid to members of ICE, representing 72 percent of the red king crab fleet, he said.
Two smaller king crab fisheries will not open in the Bering Sea. On Oct. 2, Fish and Game announced that the St. Matthew Island section of the blue king crab fishery, and the Pribilof District red and blue king crab seasons are both closed this year.
The Alaska State Troopers patrol vessel Stimson will return to patrol the Bristol Bay red king crab grounds, said Sgt. Robin Morrisett of the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection office in Unalaska. He said the enforcement vessel didn't work the previous red king crab season.
"There's just not a big incentive to cheat" since the advent of IFQs under the rationalization program, he said. The rationalization program took effect in 2005, eliminating the former competitive system where fishermen could end up with nothing if they missed the first two days of the season because of mechanical problems. Now, with pre-assigned individual quotas, fishermen can wait out stormy weather.
Back in the day before IFQs, Morrisett recalled an illegal fishing practice of "blackbagging" buoys prior to the opening date of the fishery. That involved the bright-colored crab pot buoys concealed with black plastic garbage bags, making them hard to see from a patrol plane flying 500 to 1,000 feet above the water. The shady practice made detection difficult -- though not impossible -- since the concealed buoys could also be identified with thermal imaging, particularly since the black color absorbs more heat.
If it soaked for a week or two before the legal opening date, a crab pot could be retrieved "plugged" full of crab during the open season, he said. Additionally, illegal pre-season pot deployment helped with "prospecting" or identifying productive fishing areas, he said.
These day, Morrisset is more concerned with intentionally setting illegal pots for "homepacks," bringing packs of crab back home to Seattle or even to eat on the boat. If illegal homepack crab was found on a boat crossing state lines, it could face severe federal penalties resulting in the vessel's seizure, he said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org