Seawatch: ‘Snowmachine’ fishery opens soon

Perhaps the strangest commercial fishery in Alaska, combining the state’s love of fishing and snowmachines, is set to open next week, but no one is signed up to participate yet.

The Norton Sound red king crab fishery kicks of Feb. 25, and the quota is set at 150,600 pounds, or 6 percent of the legal male biomass of 2.51 million pounds.

The fishery takes place out on the ice of Norton Sound, and people travel from three-fourths of a mile to more than 2 miles offshore by snowmachine, truck or 4-wheeler, cut holes in the ice with chainsaws, and drop pots.

Assistant area management biologist Justin Leon said the lack of registrants may have something to do with the “crazy bad storms” in the area, which means the mail system has been slow, so people may be waiting for their state permit cards before they come register at the local office.

“I’m sure that’s (been) a factor, that slows down the mail and things like that. When they come to register with us, they already have their permit from the (Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission). So I think there’s a couple factors playing into that, but we’re definitely a little surprised too,” he said.

The fishery has had its ups and downs but working with the Board of Fisheries they have put steps in place to ensure that it is a more orderly fishery, including a 20-pot limit designed to deal with what has been a high number of pots lost when people keep them out on the ice too close to breakup.

There is also now an actual quota system.

“The way it was before, there was no designated percentage, the fishery had never been so large, so it was ‘just go out there, go fishing, it’ll be limited based on effort,’ because we didn’t have much participation until the price got so good that everyone started jumping in,” Leon said. “The amount being taken out crept up and up and up. The processors presented the proposal, and the BOF decided to go with 8 percent, so now it’s got a cap, essentially.”

Just like the fishery, Norton Sound red king crab are unlike any other. They are smaller, about half the size of Bristol Bay red king crab, and the meat is sweeter and less fibrous, with a marketing advantage of also having a summer-long fishery.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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