NOAA rejects commercial fishing in Bering Sea crab area

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has rejected a petition from crab fishers to bar all commercial fishing for six months in an area of the Bering Sea designated as a special protective zone for red king crab, which have suffered a population crash.

The decision announced on Jan. 20 by NOAA Fisheries confirms action in December by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council rejected the emergency request, which was made by the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a harvester group.

In a statement, NOAA Fisheries said the available information did not support the requested emergency action to bar all fishing in the square-shaped territory in outer Bristol Bay known as the Red King Crab Savings Area.

Specifically, it did not show that such action “would address the low abundance and declining trend of mature female Bristol Bay red king crab,” the statement said. “The immediate benefits of emergency rulemaking in this case do not outweigh the value of advance notice, public comment and deliberative consideration of the impacts on participants under the normal rulemaking process.”

The Red King Crab Savings Area was designated in 1996, and bottom trawling is banned there, though trawling at midwater depths, longline fishing and fishing with pots is allowed, NOAA Fisheries said.

The crab harvesters’ group argued that those fisheries that are conducted in the area are damaging crabs and their habitat. The allowed harvests are causing fishing gear to touch the seafloor and harm crabs when they are in their sensitive molting and reproductive phases, the harvesters’ group argued.

In a statement, the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers said its members are “dismayed and disappointed” at the denial.

“We have science and data proving this action would help crab at a time when the stock needs it. … And if our situation isn’t urgent and alarming with closed fisheries and collapsed stocks, then what is?” the statement said.

Stocks of Bristol Bay red king crab, a species that normally supports a lucrative commercial harvest, are so low that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last October closed the fishery for the second consecutive year. Along with that closure, the department imposed its first-ever closure on the harvest of Bering Sea snow crab, another stock that crashed dramatically.

Crab harvests, even those conducted in federal waters, are managed by the state, though NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cooperate in management. Those federal entities have management authority over other fisheries conducted in federal waters.

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