Crab season closures ‘devastating’ for Bering Sea fishing family

Crab season closures ‘devastating’ for Bering Sea fishing family
Published: Jul. 11, 2023 at 7:05 PM AKDT
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KODIAK, Alaska (KTUU) - For Kodiak’s Gabriel Prout, crab fishing is both an occupation and a way of life.

“There’s something special about being on the water and being a Bering Sea crab fisherman,” said Prout, whose father spent 45 years fishing on the Bering Sea. “It’s kind of hard to explain. There is a deep appreciation for what we do and the resource and the job and the work we put in.”

In the summer of 2020, Prout and his brothers purchased a boat and took out loans to buy fishing rights. But in the fall of 2022, his family was hit with multiple setbacks. Not only had the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled the Bristol Bay red king crab season for the second year in a row, the Bering Sea snow crab season was also canceled.

“The population abundance levels were the lowest we’ve ever seen [for Bering Sea snow crab],” ADF&G Research Coordinator Ben Daly said. “And below the state’s harvest strategy for having a fishery.”

According to Daly, warm temperatures in the Bering Sea are attributed to the decline of the snow crab population. In 2018, the snow crab’s density peaked just as water temperatures soared to over 3 degrees and remained there for two years, according to ADF&G and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The thriving temperatures for this species, according to NOAA, is at 2 degrees Celsius and below.

“And because crab, in general, are ectothermic, meaning their internal temperature matches the environment, when that environment warms, their metabolism increases. So they need to eat more food, consume more calories in order to maintain their physiological demands,” Daly said. “When the ocean warmed in the two years, the belief is that their metabolism warmed up. And at the high densities they were at and in those two years, there just simply wasn’t enough food available to maintain their metabolic demands.”

This led to cannibalism or starvation. But according to Daly, this is still an ongoing theory.

Meanwhile, Daly said the department had been tracking a decline in Bristol Bay red king crab for over the past two decades and the season was closed due to a low numbers of crabs.

The closures were crushing for the Prout family, whose livelihoods heavily depend on the season.

“The closure of the 2022 snow crab [season] for the first time ever and the second closure of king crab has been nothing short of devastating for myself and our family,” Prout said. “We’ve had to make cuts to maintenance, we’ve had to make cuts to crew. Obviously, all these factors are impacting the safety and the reliability of the vessels so it really is a tough situation to be finding ourselves in right now.”

Prout’s vessels are now tendering and transporting fish in Prince William Sound, even though it only brings in 10% to 20% of the revenue his family needs. Prout said they are looking at an 80% loss of revenue from missing both seasons.

“It’s quite honestly very scary to only have 10 to 20% of the revenue when you need 50 or 60 or 70% to make loan payments to pay the bank and pay off the fishing rights that you took out loans for,” Prout said.

Prout said other fishermen are facing similar dilemmas and has heard of several vessels that have had to sell out.

“Some are trying to find sources of alternate funding. Some are trying their best to renegotiate their loan terms with the banks,” Prout said.

Prout said he continues to hope and pray that either a disaster fund will come soon to help the fleet stay afloat, or a season will open up.

“We are multigenerational fishermen. This is what we do. This is our livelihood. It really is questionable whether or not we are going to find a path forward. Not only for my family but the fleet as a whole,” Prout said.

ADFG said the federal government is currently doing a bottom trawl survey of the Bering Sea snow crab population. Those results, Daly said, should be ready on August 15.