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Ice-plagued Alaska's Bering Sea crabbers still wonder if they'll reach quota

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

With Bering Sea ice finally retreating well north of the Pribilof Islands, commercial crabbers are wondering how much of their opilio snow crab quota can be caught before the season ends June 15.

Icy waters have already contributed to one of the worst seasons in decades, prompting managers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to extend the previous opilio deadline of May 31.

Trident Seafoods Operations Vice President Paul Padgett thinks his fleet will wrap up early. Unalaska city Natural Resources Manager Frank Kelty sees a "fighting chance" fisherman will reach the quota, but would like to see another extension of at least a week. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Shellfish Management Biologist Heather Fitch says the crabbers could get it all.

On Tuesday Fitch said 15.7 million pounds remained from the original 88.9 million pound quota.

Last week was slow with just 2 million pounds delivered, far less than the best week in January when 6 million came in. If fishing returns to peak levels, the full quota could be taken, she said.

Fifty-five boats were still fishing; 15 have finished.

Snow crab fishing has picked up significantly in recent days, with fishermen finding many shellfish, Padgett said Tuesday. He said boats were lined up to deliver in St. Paul and Akutan, with enough product to keep Trident's plants busy into next week.

The ice has receded enough that the very helpful tugboat Redoubt was no longer needed last week to help crabbers maneuver through ice in the St. Paul harbor, said Padgett. He credited the Homer-based vessel with getting several million pounds of crab landed in the port.

The ice-infested Bering Sea has inspired the literary imagination of some fishermen. King Cove crab fisherman Ryan Collins of the crabber Kona Kai recalled ice chunks "bigger than the boat. We just can't get to the crab because there's ice over them," he said earlier in the season.

Financial losses included numerous crab pots valued at $1,200 each, he said.

"There's been thousands of pots lost by the fishermen this season," Collins said.

Ice would pick up the pots' buoys and lines and move them miles away, far from the original computer coordinates that normally makes finding them easy. With nature acing out technology, fishermen tried to find runaway pots with binoculars, he said.

Padgett said twice it appeared that conditions were improving, only to worsen. Boats shuttled back and forth from Seattle. This is the worst season he's seen, though he said veteran crab fishermen recall similar circumstances in the 1970s.

"Hopefully we won't see another season like this one any time soon," Padgett said.

Used with permission of the Dutch Harbor Fisherman. Jim Paulin can be reached a jpaulin@reportalaska.com