By WESLEY LOY
Anchorage Daily News
August 07, 2006
Yet crabbers threw an estimated 677,000 of the giant orange spiders overboard at sea, many of them to die from the trauma of being hauled up in steel cages and dumped onto the decks of pitching boats.
All totaled, the tossed crabs were worth about $15 million.
Why would crabbers kick that kind of cash back into the drink?
The crabbers have their reasons.
But some people say there's no excuse for such waste and abuse of the crab stocks, and there ought to be a rule against it.
"It is reprehensible for an industry that has received the bounty of a massive public resource to be wasting crab, period," said Michelle Ridgway, a Juneau marine biologist and a longtime player in the knotty world of Alaska commercial fisheries management.
Catching king crab is a notoriously risky, but lucrative, occupation. The danger of drowning or injury is so great that Alaska crabbing has rated its own Discovery Channel reality series called "Deadliest Catch."
By regulation, some boats carry observers - people to keep a tally of the catch, including the shellfish that are thrown away.
Officials with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game analyzed the observer data from last season's fishery, which opened Oct. 15 and ran for three months, and made an eye-popping discovery - that crabbers had dumped lots of king crab they normally kept in the past.
Only large, male king crab can be sold at the docks. The 677,000 thrown overboard last season was unprecedented - amounting to one in every five legal males caught, or 24 times the number dumped the prior season.
The enormous spike in dumping had to do with the fact that last fall's fishery was the first to operate under a revolutionary new management system.
Historically, the fleet had dueled on the water for a share of an overall catch limit, each boat racing to capture as many crabs as possible before the quota was reached and the fishery closed - usually in less than a week.
Under the new regime that fishery regulators began using last fall, each boat went to sea with its own predetermined share of the catch.
That meant each boat captain had the luxury of weeks or even months to fish more slowly and in safer weather - and also to hunt for crabs with the newest and prettiest shells free of barnacles, scratches, worn spots or discoloration. The crabs that didn't measure up could be tossed.
The motivation was money.
So-called new-shell crabs can fetch a higher price from the seafood processors who buy them at Alaska ports.
The freedom to "high grade," or keep the best crabs and dump the rest, is a gross flaw in the new management system and needs to be fixed immediately, Ridgway said.
Federal and state regulators have rules against wasting other types of seafood. For instance, the state requires all salmon catches go to some productive use, even if it's only as pet food. And federal regulators require full retention of such bottom fish as pollock and cod.
Chagrined crabbers and other industry representatives agree that last season's dumping was unacceptable and can't be repeated.
Otherwise, fishery regulators might cut fishermen's quotas in future seasons to account for the death rate in dumped crabs, they said.
Fish and Game biologists assume that 20 percent of discarded crabs die because of broken legs or other injuries from rough handling on boats, or exposure to frigid air.
At that rate, about 135,000 king crabs that might have been eaten by people at home or in fine restaurants instead became fish food or rotted on the sea floor last season.
At a recent meeting at Leif Erikson Hall in Seattle, where much of the Alaska crab fleet is based, crabbers promised Fish and Game officials they'd clean up their act. That means keeping legal male crabs, blemishes and all.
"We are absolutely foolish if we don't take that to heart and do it," said Gary Painter, a vessel owner. "We gotta be smart about this."
Don Giles, president of Icicle Seafoods Inc., a major king crab buyer, said packers pay a premium for top-grade or No. 1 crabs and less for scratched, discolored or barnacled No. 2 crab.
The fact is, processors have a harder time selling No. 2 crabs to choosy consumers, Giles said.
"If you have steak and you have hamburger, there's different prices for it," he said.
John Iani, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator who now represents crab processors, said the companies aren't to blame for the crab dumping. He said he knew of no cases where processors pressured fishermen to deliver only new-shell crabs to the docks.
Iani also said he hopes regulators don't "overreach by cutting the quota because that will hurt everybody."
Crabbers estimate that if regulators cut next season's quota to compensate for the dumping, it could cost each fishery permit holder an average of $15,000.
Last season, 89 boats kept and delivered about 2.7 million king crabs for an average payoff of about $900,000 per boat.
Forrest Bowers, a Fish and Game biologist who manages the crab fisheries, said no decision has been made about next year's king crab quota. Many factors will be considered, he said, including this summer's survey of the crab population and any solutions the fishermen offer.
But Ridgway said the federal regulators who made the controversial decision to divide the fishery into individual shares - lucrative catch rights that can be leased or sold for millions of dollars - ought to insist that crab not be wasted. She said conservation activists had warned of the need for tighter rules to prevent waste.
"It's easy to say we told you so but we did," Ridgway said.
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