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Fishermen and Scientists Partner to Fill Critical Data Needs for Bristol Bay Red King Crab

February 21, 2023

Crabbers are providing their vessels and expertise in a cooperative research effort to answer key questions for management.

Commercial fishing boat with man handling crabs Commercial fishing for Bristol Bay red king crab in winter. Credit: Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers/Jamie Goen.

Tempestuous weather and icy seas make winter research on Bristol Bay red king crab challenging. This winter, crab fishermen are working together with scientists to make it possible. 

The Bering Sea crab industry is partnering with NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to meet a critical need for winter data on Bristol Bay red king crab. Scientists and fishermen will work together on the month-long field research, set to launch in March. The research responds directly to data requests from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to inform their management decisions.    

“It’s an exciting chance to study this stock in winter,” said study lead Mike Litzow, Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “That’s when people really interact with the stock— the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery and many other fisheries that potentially interact with crab take place in fall and winter. But because of the difficulty of working in the Bering Sea in winter, we don’t have great data then. This is a great opportunity to fill that data gap.”


A cage that has crabs being brought onto a ship
Commercial pot fishing for Bristol Bay red king crab. Credit: Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers/Jamie Goen.

Declining Stock and a Research Opportunity

Bristol Bay red king crab is the largest U.S. stock and has been among the most valuable U.S. fisheries. However, the stock has gradually diminished over the past 15 years. The decline is part of a broader trend in red king crab populations across Alaska. It is driven by failure of the stock to produce enough young, but the reason remains unknown. Reduced numbers of female Bristol Bay red king crab led to closure of the fishery under State of Alaska harvest control rules in 2021 and 2022 for the first time since 1995. 

With crabbers out of work, the industry proposed a unique research opportunity. Crabbers would work at sea with scientists, providing the capacity to accomplish winter research that would not otherwise be possible.  

"The Bering Sea crab industry is very encouraged to be working with NOAA Fisheries and Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The agencies hustled to get research going in short order to help address the dire situation the crab industry is currently in,” said Scott Goodman, Executive Director, Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. “Both agencies are funding the project to prioritize urgent research that will help by getting some crab vessels and crew out on the water immediately to collect timely, important information. The project is also tackling some important pot gear work to refine options that would keep unwanted small crab out of pots, as lowering fishing impacts is a high priority for crabbers.”


Fishermen sorting through crab on a boat
Bristol Bay king crab catch in 2018. Credit: Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers/Jamie Goen.

Crab Pot Surveys, Satellite Tagging, and Gear Modification Tests

The cooperative study will provide a rapid research response to answer questions about winter distribution and movement. Late winter/spring is likely a vulnerable molting and mating period during the life of Bristol Bay red king crab. 

“The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been asking for better information on winter distributions,” Litzow said. “That’s the primary goal of this work.”

Map of Bristol Bay in Alaska showing sampling sites
Preliminary sampling locations for the March–April 2023 red king crab pot survey in Bristol Bay, Alaska. About 1,000 pots will be set over 50–60 stations. The red box shows the current Red King Crab Savings Area. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.


Fishermen bringing cage of crabs onto boat
Sampling red king crab using commercial crab pots. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Leah Zacher.

Two crab boats and crew will launch from Dutch Harbor to begin research in March. The team will:

  • Conduct a crab pot survey to map winter/spring Bristol Bay red king crab distributions in and outside of protected areas
  • Attach satellite tags to about 100 mature male red king crabs to track their movements
  • Test gear modifications and pot fishing methods to reduce discards by allowing non-legal crabs to exit pots

All crab will be returned to sea alive after sampling. 


Scientist putting a satellite tag on a crab
Alaska Department of Fish & Game scientists Vicki Vanek and Andrew Nault satellite tag a red king crab. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Leah Zacher.


A crab with a satellite tag
A satellite-tagged red king crab, ready to release. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Leah Zacher.

New Findings to Inform Management Decisions

The data collected will expand understanding of seasonal changes in crab distribution during potentially sensitive crab life-history periods. This information can be used to assess existing protection measures to bolster population recovery.

“The research will provide information that could inform management decisions as early as this fall,” Goodman said. “Results from the gear work may also weigh into upcoming management decisions.”

“The project is gathering information to optimize chances for population recovery through habitat protections and bycatch reduction,” said co-lead Benjamin Daly, Research Coordinator, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Westward Region. Better understanding of winter spatial distributions and seasonal migrations is needed to evaluate the efficacy of area closures. And fishing gear testing will help reduce regulatory discards in the directed fishery.

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on March 28, 2023