Top photo: Tanner crab via Wikipedia
In a town like Kodiak, which is sustained by fishing, there are few opportunities to make a living other than commercial fishing. Back in mid-January, local Tanner crab vessels steamed out of Kodiak and Old Harbor with high hopes for a successful crab season. This year the excitement had been palatable on the docks as the projected price per pound was the highest fishermen had seen. The fleet did receive a record-breaking price and the monies earned by the fishermen trickled down throughout the community.
Commercial fishing is an industry riddled with ups and downs, and as our vulnerabilities increase under a changing climate, it is critical we use all information sources and best available science to guide management decisions. Fishermen can contribute to management and science information needs in a meaningful way through ongoing engagement in the policy arena. The Kodiak District Tanner crab fishery is a prime example of collaborative efforts yielding positive results.
The crab fishery was closed from 1994-2002 due to low abundance, but since then a management plan has successfully rebuilt this small but important local fishery. The winter Tanner crab fishery is somewhat unique in that it was designed with input from the community-based fleet. Fishermen wanted managers to factor in safety, equity, and conservation into how the fishery operates.
As careful stewards of the resource, Kodiak crab fishermen played an integral role in designing the management system to have the least negative impact on the Tanner crab stocks. Crab pots can only be hauled from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night, thereby reducing the mortality of discarded crab—those that are undersize or female. Minimizing the number of times a pot is hauled in a 24-hour period reduces stress on the crab when handled on deck, and the daylight only requirement limits the exposure of discarded crab to colder temperatures in the night.
Vessels are also limited to 20 pots depending on the guideline harvest level of crab, which serves to both minimize the impact of the gear on the crab and level the playing field. When the allowable harvest goes up, so does the number of pots the fishermen can use. This year the available harvest in Kodiak was 1.1 million pounds and 82 vessels easily caught the crab in 8 days. Communication with the fleet has steadily improved over time and most fishing vessels now communicate with managers daily. The Tanner crab fishery provides a great example of fishermen accountability through communication and a commitment to work with fisheries managers.
In addition, Kodiak-based fishermen this spring advocated to the Alaska Board of Fisheries to maintain the 20-pot limit until the guideline harvest reached 5 million pounds before increasing the pot limit up to 30. Previously a 2-million-pound guideline harvest triggered the pot increase. The fleet has shown time and time again they can catch the crab with just a few pots and the benefits of a strict limit ripples down through the fleet and across the crab grounds. The Board approved the fishermen’s request to limit themselves.
Working together, fishermen and managers decided to factor in weather before the opening of the season to achieve greater safety and equity within the fishery. It is dangerous for smaller vessels to travel in rough weather with crab gear on their decks, and therefore if the daily weather update for the fishing grounds includes a gale warning, managers delay the fishery for 24 hours. While it may be an uncomfortable ride for an 80-foot vessel carrying 20 heavy crab pots out to the grounds, for a 42-foot shallow draft seiner, like our boat, it is life threatening. We won’t travel in gale winds. Thus, without the weather stand down, a few larger boats would harvest a significant amount of the fishery while the rest of the fleet is tied to the docks.
These same fishermen also advocated in the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council process to increase data to understand impacts of federally managed groundfish fisheries on the vulnerable crab stocks. All of these are great examples of fishermen-led efforts to conserve the stocks and support fleet equity.
As community-based fishermen dependent on the health of the fisheries resource to make a living, many fishermen advocate in the fisheries policy arena in support of sustainable fisheries and opportunities for the next generation. We work hard to share both our experience and knowledge of the industry before management bodies like the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Both of these bodies are set up to provide stakeholder input, and policy makers value the contribution of the fishermen to inform decisions. This process, coupled with strong science that is followed, will help sustain the species in the North Pacific as we experience unprecedented change in our large marine ecosystems.
The nutrient-rich waters that surround Kodiak Island support a remarkable diversity of life, both on land and in the sea. We know changes are coming to the waters surrounding our island home and changes are expected for decades ahead. Conservative management practices and increased utilization of the knowledge of the fishing fleet and traditional knowledge holders will help bridge the gap to inform adaptation and mitigation measures to support a viable future for the next generations. We must work together to support community resiliency in fishery dependent communities and use our voices to influence positive change. Our fishing communities are worth it.