Fishermen Partner with Scientists to Gather Bering Sea King Crab Data
Bristol Bay king crab catch in 2018.
Winter research on Bristol Bay red king crab is challenging, so crab harvesters are working with scientists to gather data. The Bering Sea crab industry is partnering with NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on field research throughout March.
Unique Research Opportunity
Bristol Bay red king crab is the largest US stock and has been among the most valuable US fisheries. However, the stock has diminished over the past fifteen years, part of a broader trend in red king crab populations across Alaska. Failure to produce enough young is one factor, but the complete picture remains unknown. Reduced numbers of female Bristol Bay red king crab led state regulators to close the fishery in 2021 and 2022 for the first time since 1995.
With crabbers out of work, the industry proposed a unique research opportunity: crabbers would work at sea with scientists.
“The Bering Sea crab industry is very encouraged to be working with NOAA Fisheries and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The agencies hustled to get research going in short order to help address the dire situation the crab industry is currently in,” says Scott Goodman, executive director of the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. “Both agencies are funding the project to prioritize urgent research that will help by getting some crab vessels and crew out on the water immediately to collect timely, important information.”
Two crab boats will launch from Dutch Harbor in March for a month-long research program. The team will conduct a crab pot survey to map winter/spring Bristol Bay red king crab distributions in and outside of protected areas. About 100 mature male red king crabs will have satellite trackers attached. And crews will test gear modifications and methods that let non-legal crabs exit pots, reducing discards. All crab will be returned to sea alive after sampling.
“It’s an exciting chance to study this stock in winter,” says study lead Mike Litzow with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “That’s when people really interact with the stock; the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery and many other fisheries that potentially interact with crab take place in fall and winter, but because of the difficulty of working in the Bering Sea in winter, we don’t have great data then. This is a great opportunity to fill that data gap.”
Preliminary sampling locations for the March–April 2023 red king crab pot survey in Bristol Bay, Alaska. About 1,000 pots will be set over 50 to 60 stations. The red box shows the current Red King Crab Savings Area.
The cooperative study will answer questions about winter distribution and movement. Late winter/spring is likely a vulnerable molting and mating period during the life of Bristol Bay red king crab.
“The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been asking for better information on winter distributions,” Litzow says. “That’s the primary goal of this work.”
The data collected can be used to assess existing protection measures to bolster population recovery.
Data to Inform Management
Alaska Department of Fish & Game scientists Vicki Vanek and Andrew Nault satellite tag a red king crab.
“The research will provide information that could inform management decisions as early as this fall,” Goodman says. “Results from the gear work may also weigh into upcoming management decisions.”
“The project is gathering information to optimize chances for population recovery through habitat protections and bycatch reduction,” says Benjamin Daly, research coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Westward Region. “Better understanding of winter spatial distributions and seasonal migrations is needed to evaluate the efficacy of area closures. And fishing gear testing will help reduce regulatory discards in the directed fishery.”