Benthic Habitats and the Effects of Fishing

Symposium Abstract: Did Bottom Trawling in Bristol Bay’s Red King Crab Brood-Stock Refuge Contribute to the Collapse of Alaska’s Most Valuable Fishery?

C. Braxton Dew and Rorbert A. McConnaughey

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569605.ch110

The 1976 U.S. Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act effectively eliminated the no-trawl zone known as the Bristol Bay Pot Sanctuary, located in the southeastern Bering Sea, Alaska. Implemented by the Japanese in 1959, the boundaries of the Pot Sanctuary closely matched the well-defined distribution of the mature-female brood stock population of red king crab Paralithodes camtschaticus, affording a measure of protection to the reproductive potential of the stock. In 1980, the point at which the commercial harvest of Bristol Bay legal-male red king crab reached an all-time high after a decade-long increase, domestic bottom trawling in the broodstock sanctuary began in earnest with the advent of a U.S.–Soviet joint-venture fishery for yellowfin sole Limanda aspera. In the first year of trawling in the Pot Sanctuary, the Bering Sea–Aleutian Islands (BSAI) red king crab bycatch increased by 371% over the 1977–1979 average; in 1981, the BSAI bycatch increased another 235% over that of 1980, most of which were mature females. As the number of unmonitored domestic trawls in the broodstock area increased rapidly after 1979 and anecdotal reports of “red bags” (trawl cod-ends plugged with red king crab) began to circulate, the proportion of males in the mature population (0.25 in 1981 and 0.16 in 1982) jumped to 0.54 in 1985 and 0.65 in 1986. It is unlikely that normal demographics caused this sudden reversal in sex ratio. Our hypothesis is that sequential, sex-specific sources of fishing mortality were at work. Initially, there were 10 years (1970–1980) of increasing, male-only exploitation in the directed pot fishery, followed by a drastic reduction in the male harvest after 1980 (to zero in 1983). Then, beginning around 1980, there was an increase in bottom trawling among the highly aggregated, sexually mature female brood stock concentrated near the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, an area documented by previous investigators to be the most productive spawning, incubation, and hatching ground for Bristol Bay red king crab. There has been considerable discussion about possible natural causes (e. g., meteoro-logical regime shifts, increased groundfish predation, epizootic diseases) of the abrupt collapse of the Bristol Bay red king crab population in the early 1980s. Our discussion focuses on the association between record harvests of male crabs in the directed fishery, the onset of large-scale commercial trawling within the population’s primary reproductive refuge, and the population’s collapse.