NOAA assessment finds Kona crab fishery healthy, room for catch to increase

  • Cooked Kona crabs are stacked in a chafing dish. (NOAA Fisheries/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • An illustration of a Kona crab. (NOAA Fisheries/Kat Uno/Special to West Hawaii Today)

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 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 around 70,000 pounds annually. That number 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 had been 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 under 40,000 pounds of Kona crab. 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 have been implemented to protect Kona crab, which may have contributed to the health of the stock in Hawaii waters. According to the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources website, no crab with a carapace length less than 4 inches may 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.

Clayton Hee, a former Hawaii state Senator based in Oahu during his time with the Legislature, introduced a law banning the taking or killing of female crabs. The measure passed in 2006 and named the female Kona crab specifically, among others.

NOAA and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, its partner organization, determined females comprised roughly 51 percent of overall catch of Kona crab, nearly nine out of 10 of them surviving after being released.

Kona crab is rarely available in stores. According to the NOAA article, this is because the sand crabs 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.

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 both cooked and raw.

According to a press release, the Council provided recommendations to DAR at its March meeting, which included reversing the law banning the take of 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 of the Council under advisement.

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“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.”

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.

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