King crab dethroned

Warren S. Wooster

School of Marine Affairs University of Washington Seattle, WA 98195, USA

Introduction

The king crab stock in the eastern north Pacific (eastern Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska; see Fig. 2.1) has varied nearly tenfold in abundance in the last 25 years (Hayes, 1983). Since the late 1960s, the fishery has been the second most valuable Alaskan seafood industry, exceeded in value only by the combined six salmonid species harvested in Alaska (Hanson, 1987).

Fig. 2.1 Map of the study area.

The small Alaskan port of Dutch Harbor, a major center for crab processing, was in 1979 the number one US fishing port in dollar volume, handling seafood valued at more than the combined landings of the North American ports of Seattle, Astoria, Ketchikan, Newport, Westport, Charleston, Coos Bay, and Eureka (McLaf-ferty, 1980). However, by 1982 Dutch Harbor was "beginning to look like a ghost town" (Anon., 1983).*

The change took place in 1981, when stock abundance fell precipitously; it has recovered only very slowly since then (Fig. 2.2). Stocks of other king crabs (blue, brown) also shrank as did Tanner crabs. The reasons for the collapse have not been established although various explanations have been offered, including overfishing, predation, disease, and environmental change. Evidence for none of these is very convincing. That the cause was some sort of environmental change is suggested by the widespread nature of the decline including several species in both the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

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Fig. 2.2 Alaska king crab landings from Central and Western areas. Data from Hanson, 1987 (his Table 2.1). Central includes Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island, and South Peninsula. Western includes Bristol Bay, Dutch Harbor, Adak, and eastern Bering Sea.

* By 1988, Dutch Harbor was back to second place in US landings (D. Bevan, personal communication).

Whatever its cause, collapse of the fishery led to economic disaster. The fleet was too large, many vessels were heavily leveraged, and most owners were unable to pay their bills. Unprecedented prices, resulting from low production, threatened loss of all but the luxury markets. Fishermen were faced with foreclosure or diversification - and funds for the latter were scarce (Sabella, 1982). Yet, the eventual solution for the industry was the transfer of effort and investment to other resources.

This is not the first fishery crisis caused by the disappearance of a resource, nor will it be the last. Indeed, such collapses may be more frequent in a future of drastically changed climate. Are there lessons in how the industry responded to this set of events? Could the fishery have been managed more effectively (1) to prevent the collapse, (2) to anticipate the collapse more effectively, or (3) to mitigate the economic and social cost of the collapse? Will there continue to be other resources to absorb the energies of the industry?

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