Dungeness crab fishery to close early due to poor returns
July 7, 2022
Southeast Alaska’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery will close two weeks early due to poor returns, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) announced last week.
The state forecasts about two million pounds of crab will be harvested across the region this season, a significant decrease from the past four years. It will be only the third time in 20 years that the state has closed the fishery early.
“We’re generally hearing regionwide of below-average catches,” said ADFG shellfish biologist Joe Stratman in Juneau.
The amount harvested in the first week of the season — about 433,000 pounds — was a little less than half of what it was a year ago. The state uses fishery data from the first week to estimate the total season harvest and make management decisions.
Over the last 10 years, the average harvest for the first seven days of the season was 894,000 pounds. The total-season harvest averaged 3.7 million pounds.
Last year Lynn Canal crabbers enjoyed a banner season with record prices and a catch of more than double the area’s 10-year average. Southeast’s harvest two years ago was the second largest on record at 6.7 million pounds.
Not only is the catch lower this year but prices have dropped. Southeast processors paid an average of $4.21 per pound for Dungeness crab last year, but are buying it at $2.79 this season.
Haines Packing Company owner Harry Rietze said the price drop “was due to high prices last year and carryover inventory that processors are still trying to sell.”
Stratman said the low harvest numbers might be explained by a number of factors. An early season catch can be low when molting occurs late.
Just after shedding their exoskeletons, crabs are soft-shelled and less appealing to consumers and processors, so fishermen are more likely to release them.
Male Dungeness crabs molt once a year, usually sometime between February and July. “There is a lot of variability on molt timing in Southeast Alaska,” Stratman said.
Low water temperatures this spring might have delayed molting or made crabs less active. Large tides also might have affected the fishery. The opener “just coincided this year with a really large tide cycle,” Stratman said.
The fishery’s worst harvest on record was 2017, when it closed three weeks early. That year the summer harvest was under 1.5 million pounds.
Unless the state determines that a large amount of soft-shelled crabs contributed to low first-week numbers – prompting the assumption that more crabs are out there for harvest – the fall season will be reduced to one month.
For most areas, including Lynn Canal, the fall fishery usually lasts two months. It starts Oct. 1.
Fishery managers conduct dockside interviews to evaluate the prevalence of soft-shelled crabs in the harvest. The department will make a decision later this summer about the fall season.
The summer fishery started June 15 and now will end July 30. Generally about 80% of the total harvest is taken in the summer, Stratman said.