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Ice slows Bering Sea snow crab season

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman
Creative Commons photo

Sea ice is making for slow going for the snow crabbers.

Their boats are tying up at Unalaska's new boat harbor and crews are flying home thanks to ice clogging the fishing grounds west of the Pribilof Islands.

"Not a lot of area left" for the snow crabbers, said biologist Heather Fitch of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.

"It's definitely going to slow things down," agreed Unalaska Natural Resource Analyst Frank Kelty. "This is likely to be the worst season for ice in the Bering Sea in 30 years."

Ice can break the lines connecting crab pots to buoys floating on the surface, pop the buoys loose, and actually relocate the pots, Fitch said, making them difficult for fishermen to find.

While 47 boats were registered, only 20 were still fishing with the rest standing down because of the ice, Fitch said. Several boats pulled up their pots with the help of other boats to avoid the ice, she added.

On Jan. 30 the total harvest was 19.6 million pounds of snow, or opilio, crab, with 18.6 million pounds of individual fishing quota crab, and another million pounds from the community development quota allocation.

The season officially opened Oct. 15, but most boats wait until January. The season closes May 15.

The quota of 88.9 million pounds of snow crab marks a substantial increase from the previous season's 54.2 million pounds of opies. The average weight this year is 1.4 pounds per crab, based on landings information, Fitch said.

Unisea crab manager Al Mendoza said on Jan. 30, that a small amount of crab were being  processed at Unisea's Unalaska plant, and that fishermen were "anxiously awaiting" the next ice forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Fishermen who flew out of town tended to be those with northern shares which must be delivered in the Pribilofs under the regionalization provision of the federal crab rationalization program, Mendoza said. Boats with southern shares still had a small area available for crabbing, he added.

Unisea is now paying $1.88 per pound of snow crab, Mendoza said, and it was awaiting the arrival of its northern share crab custom processed in St. Paul by Icicle Seafoods' floating processor R. M. Thorstenson.

"If this keeps going, it going to impact the Pollock fishery too," said Kelty, citing the ice pack moving south toward the Pollock grounds near Unimak Island.

Ice is less of a problem for the Pollock trawl fishery because trawlers fish while moving and can avoid ice, said biologist Kirsta Milani of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates the Pollock fishery.

But the crab fishery involves stationary gear with the big steel traps that spend a few days on the bottom luring crab inside.

And with ice closing in, "it's difficult for the pot gear to the get the soak time that it needs," she said.

The Bering Sea Pollock fishery opened Jan. 20 with an annual quota of 1.2 million metric tons, down 4 percent from last year. The harvest through Jan. 29 stood at 10,365 metric tons for factory trawlers, 20,635 metric tons for boats delivering shore side, and 3,950 metric tons for the community development quota fishery.

A total of 49 boats were catching Pollock, including six factory trawlers, and 43 catcher vessels delivering shore side. The CDQ fishery included five boats also harvesting non-CDQ Pollock.

Mothership Pollock harvest data was withheld for confidentiality reasons because fewer than three vessels were fishing.

This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.