St. Paul Island, Alaska, on Nov. 6, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill)

Alaska cancels snow crab season amid population decline

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) announced last week that it has canceled the snow crab season for the first time in its history, due to an extreme crab population decline across the Bering Sea. 

Snow crabs are cold-water species that usually sit clustered together in areas where water temperatures are below 2 degrees C (35.6 degrees F). When the water warms and sea ice gradually disappears, the ocean is no longer livable for the crustaceans. Climate change has, of course, exacerbated these harmful conditions. 

The snow crab population began to rapidly shrink in 2018, when the population fell from around 8 billion to just 1 billion by 2021, according to Benjamin Daly, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The count in 2022 has dropped even further.

Local fisheries — like Bristol Bay’s red king crab fishery, which will also be closed for the second year in a row — will inevitably be impacted. 

The history of crab fisheries goes all the way back to 1930. Although, larger commercial efforts didn’t take place until the 1950s, when king crab fisheries developed in the Bering Sea.

Recently, almost all the stocks, including that of the Alaska crab, are in depressed conditions. While it’s not possible to know the exact reasons behind these population declines — particularly now, as there aren’t any crabs left to study — overharvest, decline in recruitment, and unintentional bycatch could have played a role.

Most recently, ADF&G released a statement stating that the focus should be on conserving Bering Sea snow crabs and “rebuilding” their population. 

“This will allow ADF&G to work on issues related to state and federal co-management, observer coverage, discard mortality and fishery viability,” the statement reads.

Biologists say that human-induced climate change and the warming of the Bering Sea waters are factors as well.

Snow crabs are Arctic animals often found in temperatures just a little above freezing (2 degrees C (35.6 degrees F) or colder, according to Michael Litzow, the Kodiak lab director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries. 

Normally, populations of these crabs would be found in the Bering Sea covered by sea ice. However, due to global warming, the havens of ice have slowly been melting away, leaving the sea uninhabitable for the snow crabs.

According to Litzow, there are attribution studies underway that have identified increasing temperatures, caused by human-induced climate change, as the primary cause of the Bering Sea’s warming.

“[The study’s conclusion] is that you would be very unlikely to see the Bering Sea this warm under pre-industrial conditions,” Litzow told Currently. “You have to invoke human changes to the atmosphere to explain the Bering Sea in such warm conditions.”

The Bering Sea has endured record-breaking heat waves in the last few years — including the deadly “Blob,” which lasted from 2014 to 2016 and destroyed much of marine life during its peak, threatening fishing industries. 

The effects were lasting, devastating the broader marine ecosystem and leading to the smallest snow crab harvest in 40 years of 5.6 million pounds, down almost 90 percent from 2021. 

It’s worth nothing that Alaska is also the fastest warming state in the nation, according to Climate Central. Rising temperatures in the state and around the Arctic have triggered a rapid loss in sea ice, contributing to the loss of crabs. 

In 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) valued Alaska’s snow crab harvest at more than $101.7 million. This year, it will be $0. 

“Many members of Alaska’s fleet will face bankruptcy, including second and third-generation crabbers whose families are steeped in the culture of this industry. Long-time crew members who have worked these decks for decades will be jobless,” warned trade association Alaskan Bering Sea Crabbers in a statement on Tuesday.

Andy Hillstrand, from the television show “Deadliest Catch,” a reality series following Alaska’s crab fishermen, said they might have to let people go.

“We’ve lost the ability to make money for the upkeep of the [fishing] vessel, he told National Fisherman. “Out of the 60-vessel crab fleet remaining since we consolidated years ago, we could lose up to half or more with this decision.”

However, there is hope. 

According to Litzow, temperatures in 2022 are much more similar to the 30-year average than those of 2018 and 2019. If it remains cold for a few years and the young crabs are able to survive and hit maturity, they should grow large enough to enter a fishery in “four or five years” and contribute to the rebound of the population.

“That’s sort of the immediate relief that might be on offer if those small crabs are able to survive,” Litzow said. “If they survive, the outlook is promising.”

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