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Kodiak fishermen gearing up for biggest Tanner crab season in decades

Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor in early January, 2023 (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)
Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor in early January, 2023 (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Kodiak’s tanner crab fishery opens on Sunday, Jan. 15 and it’s a whopper – this year’s harvest levels are the biggest they’ve been in nearly 40 years, and fishermen are gearing up for a big season in more ways than one.

Darren Platt owns the fishing vessel Agnes Sabine. It’s a 48-foot seiner – normally, he goes out for salmon – sometimes herring – and this is his fourth season fishing for tanner crabs.

He said this year, there’s been a buzz in both of Kodiak’s boat harbors.

“It looks almost like pre-salmon season,” he said. “There’s a lot of boats that haven’t fished tanner crabs in a while, or maybe have never fished it and so they’re just getting geared up now. And so the docks have been pretty darn busy for December and January.”

This year’s guideline harvest level set by the state Department of Fish and Game for tanner crabs is 5.8 million pounds – that’s more than five times last year’s quota. Chignik’s tanner crab fishery will open with harvest levels set at 400,000 pounds – the guideline harvest level for the South Peninsula’s tanner crab fishery is 1.1 million pounds.

“This is gonna be the biggest season since 1986,” said Nat Nichols, an area management biologist with Fish and Game.

He said Kodiak’s tanner crab fishery tends to be cyclical; some years the fishing is good and every few years it doesn’t open at all. Biologists have been watching this cohort since 2018.

“We expect this to be the peak,” said Nichols. “We had a 1.1 million pound fishery last year, that was the front edge of this big group of crab.”

Last year, 87 vessels fished for tanners in Kodiak’s fishery. This year, Nichols said he expects upwards of 120 boats to participate around Kodiak. That includes some Bering Sea crab boats that normally fish out west this time of year.

Higher harvest levels also mean there will be more gear in the water; normally, Kodiak’s tanner crab fishery allows for 20 pots per boat, except for when harvest levels exceed 5 million pounds. This year, each boat is allowed 30 pots.

Platt said there’s been some grumbling in the fleet about the influx of competition, but it’s to be expected with such high harvest levels and the complete closures of other crab fisheries.

“It’s traditionally been a small boat fishery in Kodiak, but it’s not abnormal for effort to shift according to abundance all over the state of Alaska,” said Platt.

Although the harvest is expected to be up this year, prices will likely be down. As of Thursday, local crabbers and processors hadn’t agreed to a price per pound – but canneries had opened negotiations at under $3. That’s a steep drop from last year when Kodiak tanner crabs went for a record $8.10 per pound. The fishery was closed in 2021, but back in 2020, fishermen were paid $4.25 per pound at the dock.

Even with Kodiak’s processors working at full capacity, the sheer volume of this year’s quota also means it will likely take time for the fleet to get their crabs off the boat.

“It’s gonna be like Bering Sea fishing,” said Luke Lester, president of the Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative. “I guarantee when the season closes, there’ll be guys waiting for up to a week at least sitting on anchor.”

Whatever happens, fishing is likely to go fast if the weather cooperates. Last year, Kodiak’s tanner crab fishery closed after just about a week. Regardless of price, Platt says he’s got a good crew this year, and he’s not sweating some of the uncertainties.

“I don’t ever set numerical expectations,” he said. “I like to eat new crab recipes, and then every year we eat crab Rangoon. So, if we’re eating crab, life is good, and that’s just the way I approach it.”

How the fishery unfolds will be known soon.