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Favorable weather marks unusually short Bering Sea crab season

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

UNALASKA (AP) -- The Bering Sea snow crab fishery wrapped up Saturday after seven days of unusually calm and sunny weather.

Biologists had slashed the quota to just 14 percent of last year's level citing a shortage of young crab, or 26.4 million pounds compared with 182 million pounds in 1999. But fishermen believe the fast pace indicates a healthy resource.

''It was an incredible season for weather. I've never seen seven days in a row that were so calm and clear and sunny. It was wonderful,'' said Peter Liske, skipper of the Amatuli.

He hadn't even heard of any injuries in a fishery where death is common, where storms often wash fishermen overboard and send boats to the bottom.

''It was the best stretch of weather maybe I've ever seen in the Bering Sea,'' said Gordon Kristjanson, skipper of the Aleutian Mariner. ''Obviously, it's a joy. It made our lives a lot simpler.''

''Unprecedented (good weather), flat calm, basically,'' Rance Morrison of the state Department of Fish and Game said last week, reporting wind speeds of just 15 knots.

The shorter season meant most of the boats had time for just one delivery. But the favorable weather meant boats with full holds returned with extra crab alive on their open decks. The warmer temperatures prevented sea spray from fatally freezing the crabs, which must be delivered alive.

Liske stuffed 8,000 pounds into two crab pots, while Kristjanson's crew built a ''corral'' to carry 25,000 pound of crab on deck in addition to the 225,000 pounds in the Aleutian Mariner's holds.

Biologists have said that next year's fishery could be canceled because of declining stocks, but fishermen contend the past week's performance doesn't justify such extreme measures.

''Considering that we caught the quota in one week's time, I think this is going to show that there are more crab out there than (Fish and Game) has led everyone to believe,'' said Bruce Lanford, skipper of the Westling. ''If we don't have a fishery next year, then a crime is being committed.''

Kristjanson was among the first fishermen back to Dutch Harbor, offloading with a different company.

His regular buyer, Alyeska Seafoods, has trimmed its fleet to comply with the American Fisheries Act, which divided the Bering Sea pollock harvest. Companies winning exclusive pollock privileges were restricted to a maximum 58 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.

But some fishermen worry that smaller companies won't provide sufficient processing capacity, and are circulating a petition opposing the processor limits, or caps, which take effect for the first time this year.

''A lot of guys came up here not knowing anything about the caps, so I think they got a big surprise. Some of them may be scrambling, looking for places to sell,'' Kristjanson said.

Biologists, however, didn't seem to be worried about insufficient processing capacity.

''Our back-of-the-envelope calculation is it's not going be a large problem,'' said Kent Lind, with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Some fishermen may avoid long waiting lines at Bering Sea plants by delivering in Kodiak, perhaps earning a higher price, Lind said.

Bering Sea buyers were paying $1.85 a pound for clean shell crab, and $1 a pound for barnacle-covered dirty shell crab.



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