Judge weighs arguments over closure of snow-crab fishery

Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- Attorneys for Bering Sea snow-crab fishermen argued Wednesday that the federal government was ''arbitrary and capricious'' in letting stand Alaska's decision to shut down this year's crab season after just one week.

On June 1, the Commerce Department -- acting on a mid-May order for a prompt decision from U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein -- ruled that Alaska's Department of Fish and Game had acted within its authority in shutting down the fishery.

Rothstein promised a written decision as soon as possible, telling the small audience at the hearing -- including several fishermen and their children -- she was ''very mindful of how serious an issue this is for the people involved.''

''That's one of the reasons I want to take some time,'' she said.

The fishery was shut down April 8, and the fishermen sued later that month pressing for a Commerce Department decision on their appeal before mid-July, when the season ends because the crab begin shedding their tough outer shells.

On Wednesday, their attorneys called to the stand a federal fisheries official who conceded that the decision to reduce the year's take to 22 percent from last year's 58 percent would have little impact on reproductive levels.

But the crab population is not healthy, said Dr. Robert Otto, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service lab in Kodiak. The level of barren females is at 14 percent, and there are unusually high levels of large males and old-shell crabs.

When a stock is dwindling, Otto asked, do you conduct business as usual or take conservation measures?

''This is why the decision was made,'' he said, noting it is not uncommon to close a fishery under these circumstances. ''We're trying to hold onto some reproductive capability while we still have it.''

Last year's fishery brought in 196 million pounds of crab, generating about $190 million for 240 fishing boats. Many are family concerns, each with a crew of five and a captain, said Tom Casey, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Group representing 31 crab-fishing families, including those in court Wednesday.

This year's fishery ended after a 30 million-pound harvest that generated about $60 million, he said -- reducing their income by two-thirds.

Otto said the harvest level at which fishing would begin affecting the crab population was ''very close'' to 58 percent, and Casey -- speaking during a recess -- said the families hope the season will be reopened to allow a larger take, preferably close to that level.

A 58 percent harvest ''is not in the cards,'' Otto told the court, though something less than that ''might be accepted.''

One thing that is known about the 22 percent level is that it ''won't do more harm,'' he said. It was set based on a formula for troubled fisheries. A larger catch would involve smaller crab, he said, which was ''not considered desirable.''

The crab-population crash -- which has also prompted legislation from Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to buy out part of the stricken crab fleet -- is not fully understood.

Big population swings seem to occur naturally, though conservation groups contend heavy fishing pressure worsens the situation. Some Alaska fishing villages have asked to be declared ''fishery resource disasters.''

Portland attorney Thane Tiensen, representing the fishermen, noted repeatedly that the fishery plummeted to extremely low levels in the mid-1980s and then rebounded in 1992, when the fleet raked in 320 million pounds.

The ''best science'' indicates that will happen again, Tiensen said, contending the shutdown is ''just shooting the fishing community in the foot.''

Otto said the situations were not comparable because at that time, the fleet consisted of just 75 boats fishing 10 months of the year. The 231 boats that went out this year ''are much more efficient,'' he said, and the percentage of barren females is much higher.

Rance Morrison, area shellfish biologist for Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, said harvest levels had fluctuated since 1993 from 60 million pounds to 300 million pounds.

Under questioning from Tiensen, he said he considered the crab stock this year ''strong relative to my expectation.''

''I was relieved when the fishery didn't fall on its face,'' Morrison said.

Thane asked him whether the economic effects of the closure on the fishing community had been weighed by anybody.

''No,'' Morrison said, adding quickly that ''we did take a look at the impact of no fishery'' on the future of that community.

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