Assessment finds Kona crab fishery healthy, room for catch to increase

  • KAT UNO/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    An illustration of a Kona crab.

KAILUA-KONA — Kona crab is an uncommon sight in grocery stores and fish markets, which could have something to do with why the stock is thriving as a fishery.

Despite fishermen seeking out the crabs for more than a century, it wasn’t until February that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center published a 2018 stock assessment of the main Hawaiian Islands Kona crab fishery.

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The stock assessment made clear that Hawaii waters remain well-populated with Kona crab, which it went on to find is not overfished.

Not only will Kona crab sustain at recent catch levels, there’s room to increase catch numbers without affecting the health of the fishery, according to a NOAA article on Kona crab relating to the stock assessment.

At its high point in 1972, catch of Kona crab peaked at about 70,000 pounds annually. Catch has remained below 40,000 pounds since 1974 and was below 3,000 pounds in 2015 and 2016, the last two years from which the stock assessment employed collected data.

NOAA’s stock assessment was conducted in the wake of a prior benchmark assessment in 2015 by lead author Lee Thomas of Hawaii Pacific University, along with other researchers, which indicated Kona crab was overfished in 2007 and “was experiencing overfishing.”

The subsequent stock assessment conducted by NOAA came to different conclusions. It examined projections for the years 2020-26 and correlated an overfishing risk of 50 percent with a corresponding annual take of just less than 40,000 pounds. In 2015 and 2016, take was found to be less than 7.5 percent of that number.

The stock assessment projected current sustainable annual take at more than 73,000 pounds.

Several measures were implemented to protect Kona crab, which might have contributed to the health of the stock in Hawaii waters. According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources website, no crab with a carapace length less than 4 inches can be kept or killed. This was the first regulation applied to Kona crab fishing, implemented in 1938.

In 1958, spearing was outlawed as a fishing practice in the take of Kona crab, which is typically caught using mesh hoop nets. For four months of the year, from May-August, no take is permitted at all. This is a time of replenishment for the crab. Those dates were extended in 1993.

A measure banning the taking or killing of female crabs during the open catch season passed the state Legislature in 2006.

Kona crab is rarely available in stores because they are caught at a depth during the fishing season that is not conducive to longevity behind seafood counters, rendering the crab “highly perishable” relatively quickly, according to the NOAA article.

The assessment states that while popular local fare that is often consumed at social events or presented as a gift, Kona crab must typically be consumed within one day of capture or it will spoil. Kona crab is popularly eaten cooked and raw.

According to a press release, recommendations were made to the Division of Aquatic Resources during a March meeting, including the reversal of the ban on taking female Kona crab, as well as considering “revised regulations to extend or shift the closed season to protect berried (egg-carrying) females.”

Dan Dennison, DLNR senior communications manager, said the agency is taking the recommendations under advisement.

“In light of new Kona crab stock assessments provided by NOAA, the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources is considering allowing the take of females and extending the closed season, if we can get that authority through the Legislature,” Dennison wrote in an email. “So we’re looking at potential scoping meetings to get input from the fishing community.”

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He added bills have been introduced “recently” to end the ban against taking female Kona crab, but as of yet none have crossed the finish line.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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