Fish Factor: Can Cordova revive Tanner crab fishery?

By Laine Welch
For The Cordova Times

Cordovans are hoping to revive a long lost Tanner crab fishery in Prince William Sound as a step towards keeping the town’s waterfront working year round.

The crab fishery produced up to 14 million pounds in the early 1970s and had declined to about half a million pounds by the time it was closed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. State managers believe the Tanner stock remains depleted and cannot provide for a commercial fishery, but locals believe it’s time to take a closer look.

“It’s largely the opinion of the people around here that the fishery could support an expanded harvest,” said John Whissel, director of natural resources for the Native Village of Eyak.  “The goal here is to get away from the boom and bust cycle, where the town doubles in size in May and then shrinks when the salmon fisheries wind down.”

Over the past year the town has turned out to support expanding research for the crab fishery in meetings with state commissioners and local legislators.

“This is as much of a grassroots effort as I’ve ever seen in terms of getting some science done. Everyone understands the benefits of having canneries and boats working year round,” Whissel said.


State biologists have conducted periodic trawl surveys in Prince William Sound since 1991, but Cordovans believe that method does not accurately count densities of crab in other regions. The Department of Fish and Game acknowledged in a memo that the existing survey “does not reflect Tanner crab abundance outside the survey grounds” but they believe the trends “are reflective of Tanners throughout the Sound.”

Starting this fall, Cordovans plan to supplement the trawl data by doing something different:  a mark recapture study.

“Marking and then recapturing crab is a pretty standard measurement of densities and age structures, and much more involved than a trawl survey,” Whissel said, adding that the Eyak tribe is now working out the study design and readying funding proposals for federal matching grants to jumpstart the Tanner project this winter.

State crab biologists said they will provide the Board of Fisheries with information next March “that could lead to a development of a harvest strategy and allow additional harvest,” according to ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten.

Meanwhile, Cordovans will begin their study with Tanners pulled up in their subsistence pots this fall. Whissel is hopeful the project will serve as a model to evaluate other potential fisheries in the region.

“There’s other opportunities around here and it would be good for our town and for our state,” he said. “With oil prices being what they are and the tax rate being what it is, commercial fishing could play a larger role in the state budget if we gave them more chances to do that.”

Whissel called the crab project collaboration by the state and tribal government “an exciting new way forward.”

“The state will find that it is able to do a lot by collaborating with tribes because we have access to different pools of federal dollars in times of tightening budgets,” he said. “Coming together on projects like this instead of being territorial is going to be the way we do things in the future.”

Got skates?  Giant skates is another fishery that could get underway in Prince William Sound and other regions after more is learned about their life style and habits.

A few skate fisheries have occurred on and off in the central Gulf over the past decade. More recently, managers have put on the brakes because of the fast pace in which they can be caught, and the fact that little is known about Alaskan skates.

“There’s quite a bit of skate fishing going on in the Atlantic, both on the US and European side, but here in Alaska it’s hasn’t been a target for very long at all. So we really don’t know that much about them,” said Thomas Farrugia, a doctoral student at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Farrugia and SFOS professor Andrew Seitz are studying whether there can be a sustainable and profitable fishery for big and long nose skates in the Gulf of Alaska. One thing they’ve learned in a year-long satellite tagging study is that skates really get around.

“It was previously thought that skates sit in one spot and look for crabs, clams and little fish to eat, but don’t have much need to move a whole lot like an oceanic predator,” Farrugia explained. “But it turns out big skates can move over hundreds of nautical miles, which we hadn’t been sure about before. The take away message is we have to look at the entire Gulf population as one big stock and not a bunch of subunits. And this will affect how the species is managed.”

Farrugia calls skates ‘flat sharks’ because the two are identical biologically.  Both have a very slow life history and produce only two to eight offspring each time they mate. In Alaska, skates can fetch nice prices – 45 cents a pound for whole fish and a dollar a pound for skate wings frozen at sea.

“Fishermen, especially bottom trawlers or halibut and cod longliners, will catch quite a few skates and retain them because the price for them is fairly high, often higher than cod,” Farrugia said.

Currently, skates can only can be retained as five percent bycatch of a targeted catch, such as cod or halibut. About 4.5 million pounds are taken in Gulf fisheries each year.

It’s mostly fishermen in Prince William Sound, Seward and Homer who are pushing for a skate fishery, while others in Kodiak believe it would be best to leave skates as a bycatch portion in their other fisheries.

“There’s a sort of geographical divide,” Farrugia said. “If they do have a fishery, it would be a short season, maybe for a week, where all these boats would target skates and then not be able to fish them for the rest of the year. Others want to be able to retain skates as bycatch over a longer period of time.”

The next phase of Farrugia’s research is to create a Gulf-wide stock assessment model that could be used by fishery managers, followed by a bio-economic model that evaluates whether a skate fishery would be feasible.

“Until we know more about the biomass and what the sustainable level is, it is probably not going to be possible to have a profitable directed skate fishery because there is just not enough quota to go around,” Farrugia said.

Climate pros/cons – Every fish in the sea responds differently to warming oceans and off kilter ocean chemistry. A new report titled Climate Change and Alaska Fisheries  highlights how some top species might be helped or harmed by changing weather patterns.

“The take home message seems to be that it will affect fisheries resources differentially. Some species of salmon such as pinks and chums seem to do a little better under warmer conditions, some not so well,” said Terry Johnson a Fisheries Professor at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks and a Marine Advisor with Alaska Sea Grant in Anchorage.

Milder winters can be a boon to freshwater growth and survival of some salmon, he pointed out, and hot summers can mean more plankton blooms in sockeye producing lakes and rivers.

“The whole issue with all of the salmon is in the end it comes down to what they find when they get to the ocean,” Johnson said.

Halibut also could respond well to more plankton blooms from warmer waters, though little research has been done on that popular fish. Species likely not to fare as well are pollock and crab.

“A big concern is both pollock and crab are expected to decline significantly in this current century, over the next four or five decades. People who are newly coming into the industry may see those fishing opportunities decrease,” he cautioned.

Warmer temperatures and milder sea condi-tions that sometimes accompany them also may im-prove safety and reduce costs for harvesters and processors. Expanded or shifted ranges can bring new fishery resources into a region, or increase abundance of those already there, the report adds.

Johnson said his main goal was to explore ways the seafood industry can adapt to the inevitable changes.

“Change is constant in fisheries,” he said. “What distinguishes fishermen from other occupational groups is they are constantly adapting to change on a year by year and day by day basis. Rather than obsessing about the good and the bad the ocean is producing because of climate, the focal point should be what on each community or each individual can do.”

Johnson hopes to hear fishermen’s ideas and experiences at a forum this fall at Pacific Marine Expo. Find the report at the Alaska Sea Grant book store.


Laine Welch of Kodiak has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1991. Visit her website at