by Craig Weatherby
People prize our Alaskan red king crab… but may not know how “green” it really is.
The tough guys followed on TV's “Deadliest Catch” know that their own futures as fishermen depend on keeping things sustainable and green.
How king crab are caught
Alaskan crab fishing is very dangerous work, due to the heavy pots, coils of line, long hours, and very rough seas.
However, King Crab is in high demand, which means good money for fishermen who brave the stormy seas.
In Alaska, three species of king crab are caught commercially: red, blue, and golden, with red crab being the most prized of the three for its sweet, abundant meat.
King crab are most commonly fished using “pots”, which are large 600- to 700-pound steel frames covered with nylon webbing.
Typically, each pot is baited and then dropped to the water where it sinks to the bottom and is allowed to “soak” for one or two days.
Buoys attached to the pots with heavy line are retrieved and lifted onto the boat by use of powerful hydraulic systems. Boats fishing king crabs are 40-200 feet long, and the largest cost several million dollars. Vessels in the Bering Sea or Aleutian Islands average more than 100 feet.
We get our Alaskan red king crab from members of The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Crab Alliance, who recognize the need to operate responsibly.
A major step toward sustainability occurred when Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976, which mandated the phase-out of foreign vessels from a 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
This landmark legislation formed the foundation for sustainable fisheries, and was amended in 1996 to further focus on rebuilding overfished fisheries, protecting essential fish habitat, and reducing bycatch.
Alaska's crab fleet: Getting greener all the time
Alaskan crab fleet has operated under harvest limits for 30 years, and only adult males are kept, with females and juveniles carefully released to maintain the stock.
Since the 1970's, all pots in Alaska's crab fisheries have used biodegradable cotton thread in escape panels. In the case of lost pots, this special thread degrades within 30 days, to allow crab to escape.
The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fleet has also funded an onboard fisheries observer monitoring program since 1988. Observers are an important element of fisheries research as they document the catch rates and sizes of crab harvested.
A vessel license system was implemented in 2000 to reduce the number of vessels in the crab fisheries and licenses were only issued for boats that were actively fishing.
But with still too many boats racing for too few crab, an industry initiative resulted in the Crab Capacity Reduction Program in 2004, which resulted in an industry funded buyback of 25 crab vessels. These vessels were removed from the fishery and are barred from engaging in any commercial fishery anywhere in the world.
Perhaps most importantly, a “catch share” program for the primary crab species of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands was implemented in 2005, and harvester cooperatives were formed.
Marine biologists, U.S. agencies, and the United Nations all promote “catch share” programs, because they set limits based on local fish and shellfish stocks, and do not reward overfishing.
Over the five years it's been in place, the Alaskan crab fleet's catch share program has brought beaucoup conservation benefits:
No incentive to overfish
Each vessel fishes a pre-determined share of the science-based catch limit and there is no longer a race to grab more crab after a boat's catch share is caught.
Every pound of crab harvested is counted and catch limits are not exceeded. Each vessel is equipped with a vessel monitoring system (VMS) to ensure compliance with landing requirements, and to collect spatial data on fishing effort.
Crabbers are constructing pots with larger web on the panels to allow for female and juvenile crab to exit the pot before the gear is hauled back by the vessel. This results in significantly less by-catch of the non-targeted animals and a higher catch rate of legally sized crab. A slower paced fishery allows for longer soak times and more time for the gear to work as it should to carefully sort the harvest.
Smaller impact on the seafloor
The program dramatically reduced the number of pots dropped on the grounds. In the red king crab fishery, pot usage has dropped by more than three-quarters, from 50,000 to 12,000. Fewer pots being used in the crab fisheries results in less impact on the marine habitat. The yearly marine habitat footprint is now less than 1/2 square mile for the entire Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.
Slows global warming
The fleet's carbon footprint has been cut dramatically thanks to cooperative fishing efforts that mean less fuel being burned.
Since Alaska's crab fisheries began operating under a catch-share system, only one life has been lost and there have been no vessels lost at sea, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Under the catch-share system, each vessel has its own quota to catch in an extended season, versus hundreds of boats in a derby-style fishery that lasts only days or weeks.
We're proud to be associated with Alaska's crab fishery, which sets world standards for sustainability… while producing some of the sweetest shellfish you'll eve eat!