The assembly voted unanimously May 28 for Scott to draft the letter, which will be reviewed by assembly members prior to submittal at the June 11 meeting.
Scott called the letter “a push, not a demand.”
When asked by Scott what an effective step would be in dealing with the issue, manager Mark Earnest said writing a letter of alarm and pursuing emergency closure. “That is something the department can do in midstream. We don’t have to wait for the Board of Fisheries.”
Assembly member Norm Smith, who has been pressing the issue and claims commercial crabbers are harvesting at the expense of subsistence users, added the item to the assembly’s agenda at the beginning of the May 28 meeting.
“The fishery is being impacted because fishermen are not catching the crab they used to down in Petersburg and Wrangell and the areas around there, so they’re coming here and they’re catching our crab, what I consider our crab,” Smith said.
The Board of Fisheries manages shellfish regulations on a three-year cycle, meaning it will not hear concerns until 2015. However, the Department of Fish and Game has authority to institute emergency closures mid-cycle if there are concerns with stocks.
Forrest Bowers, the shellfish-groundfish program leader for Fish and Game, said he has only dealt with one emergency closure request outside of the Board of Fisheries cycle. Last year’s request for a Dungeness crab closure near Prince of Wales Island failed, he said.
Bowers said there is no indication there is a conservation concern with crab in the region, a position he has reiterated at several public meetings during the past year.
“Based on all the information we have, we don’t feel there’s a conservation concern in that area, and we would not take emergency action to close the fishery,” Bowers said.
Subsistence crabbers in Haines disagree. Smith said subsistence users in waters all around Haines have struggled to catch even a fraction of the crab they used to. Users have testified at borough assembly meetings and Fish and Game advisory board meetings in the past year expressing alarm at the decreasing numbers.
Eric Holle, who crabs in a Mud Bay zone that has been closed to commercial crabbing for the past several years, said he can hardly catch anything even in the protected area. “Until last fall, it was really, really good. And this year it is really, really bad,” Holle said.
Holle used one pot and until this fall, averaged about 10 Dungeness crabs a week. “Now I’m getting an average of zero to one. I’m probably averaging a half a crab per week,” he said.
Bowers is adamant there is not stock shortage regionwide but acknowledged at a February Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting that managing the crab fishery by region is a “coarse approach,” and that communities might benefit by the fisheries being managed on a finer scale.
The sole source of information about stocks is gleaned from commercial fishing data, Bowers said.
Bowers reported at an October assembly meeting that commercial Dungeness harvest in Chilkoot Inlet increased to 90,000 pounds last summer, about three times the average annual harvest from the previous four years.
New information could be forthcoming, however, from a Comprehensive Subsistence Harvest Study recently conducted on 138 randomly-selected households in Haines.
The last subsistence study in the area was conducted in 1996.
Meredith Marchioni, a cultural anthropologist for the state Division of Subsistence, said the final report won’t be released until June 2014.
Bowers said information gathered from the up-to-date study could change Fish and Game’s opinion on local stock levels and whether an emergency closure is warranted. “It certainly would be information for us to consider.”
Some local, commercial crabbers have been strongly opposed to changes in regulations to their fishery. Reed Barber, who declined to comment for this story, asked at a February meeting of the Fish and Game advisory committee why the community and committee was spending so much time on an issue that by Fish and Game personnel admission was not a “real problem.”
One potential change mentioned at the Februrary meeting would limit commercial fishing to crabbers with 75 pots.
Alaska state law directs the Board of Game and Board of Fisheries to provide for the needs of subsistence users before the interests of commercial users.