Crabbers want more gold and goldens
Golden king crab fishermen have established a nonprofit science foundation to help increase their profits by doing research to justify bigger catches along the Aleutian Chain.
The campaign to catch more crab involves two groups. The science arm is the Alaska King Crab Research Foundation, which wants crab boats to double as research vessels, while political advocacy is conducted by the Golden King Crab Coalition.
While the two groups have different roles, they share board members, according to the foundation's new science advisor, John Hilsinger, a biologist who worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for nearly 40 years.
The coalition is seeking a nearly 1 million pound quota increase from the Alaska Board of Fisheries. They want an increase in the eastern district from the current level of 3.31 million pounds to 3.81 million, while the western district's would rise from 2.98 to 3.43 million pounds , under proposal 348. The dividing line between the two districts is at 174 degrees west longitude, near Atka.
"The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fishery is underutilized, and has been for many years. The loss to harvesters, processors and over 60 western Alaska communities has been estimated to be over $70 million in the past six years," according to the coalition.
"This crab fishery is in a robust condition," according to the proposal before the fish board when it meets March 17-21 at the Sheraton Anchorage. In the absence of a major survey of the far-flung fishery, the golden king crabbers "are requesting a conservative harvest limit increase of 10 to 15 percent."
Hilsinger retired in 2010 as the director of the state commercial fisheries division, following a career that included six years as a shellfish biologist for Sand Point and Chignik. He takes over the science advisor position from another former ADF&G biologist, Denby Lloyd, who helped start the foundation last year.
Hilsinger called his new job "exciting," because so little is known about the deep water crabs that live amid underwater mountain ranges extending 800 miles along the Aleutian Chain.
"Surveys to evaluate the Aleutian crab resource have been very limited due to its distance. A commercial fishery has been sustained for more than 30 years, now with a conservative fixed harvest cap of 6 million pounds per year. Crabbers have long believed that the catch could be higher," according to the foundation.
Hilsinger said the foundation believes it can "dramatically" cut survey costs by using crab boats already out fishing, setting counting pots at designated locations. Talks are underway with Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop an acceptable system, he said.
He added that while the survey would be industry-funded, it could increase fuel expenses for individual vessels because of the extra travel time required to break away from commercial fishing and perform research duties involving dropping and lifting pots and then counting the catch.
Unlike other king crab fisheries where pots are dropped individually into the water, golden king crab pots are longlined together in strings of 50, which Hilsinger said prevents pot loss, a common occurrence in single pot fishing.
"They virtually never lose any gear," he said.
Gear loss in single pot fisheries is typically caused by the disappearance of the buoy floating on the surface, which suspends a rope line connected to the big steel crab trap on the ocean floor for hoisting back onto the boat. But with golden kings, buoys at opposite ends of the longlines provide two retrieval points. And if both buoys are lost, the crab pots can still be brought to the surface with a grappling hook snagging the longline, Hilsinger said.
Golden king crab are also called brown king crab.
The foundation said in a press release that the golden crab "might soon compete with Bristol Bay for Alaska's largest king crab fishery." Hilsinger described that claim as "speculation," which he said depends on the size of future red king crab quotas.
The golden crab fleet is a small group of boats, including the Aleutian No. 1, Patricia Lee, and Alaska Trojan, Hilsinger said, with ownership including at least one community development quota group.
Jim Paulin can be reached at email@example.com