Alaska’s snow crab season was canceled due to dwindling populations

An effort to stem the declining population of Alaskan snow crabs will mean hundreds of crabs could be sidelined for at least a year as state and federal agencies work to understand what’s behind the dramatic decline.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Monday that the Bering Sea snow crab season will remain closed through the spring of 2023.

The season was expected to start in a few days, but a survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries found there was a shortage of adult crabs available for harvest.

“We use these numbers in an assessment model that gets plugged into the harvest strategy that annually determines the amount of grouper that can be harvested,” said Miranda Westphal, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

NOAA surveys are conducted each year to assist management organizations with restrictions and limitations on species during the fishing and hunting seasons.

Westphal said getting to the bottom of the rapid decline is the researchers’ most important task right now, and they want to determine the extent to which climate is playing a role.

“In 2018 and 2019, the Bering Sea experienced record high temperatures. And snow crabs are an arctic species, so they’re really only able to inhabit the Bering Sea because we have a lot of northerly winds pushing Arctic water down into the Bering Sea shelf,” Westphal said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 36 million pounds of crab were caught in 2020 by U.S. crabbers.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 36 million pounds of crab were caught in 2020 by U.S. crabbers.
Getty Images

Biologists theorize that reduced cold-water pockets likely led the crabs to congregate in limited real estate, putting stress on their ecosystem.

“Their metabolic needs were increased because they were in warmer water, and many were probably starving to death. They were also probably affected by predators and disease,” Westphal said.

The shutdown is likely to affect the cost of the succulent seafood; however, countries such as Canada, Russia and Japan are likely to deal with supply shortages.

The canceled fishing season may affect the price of crabs in the United States.
The canceled fishing season may affect the price of crabs in the United States.
Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

NOAA reported that U.S. crabbers caught about 36 million pounds of the crustacean in 2020, which was valued at more than $101.7 million.

Aside from harvest restrictions, biologists believe there is little that can be done in the short term to help the snow crab population.

“We caught it in time and we think there are enough crabs out there to do what they need to do to rebuild the population,” Westphal said.

Water temperature anomalies around the world.  Red areas are warmer than average and colder areas are below average.
Water temperature anomalies around the world. Red areas are warmer than average and colder areas are below average.
FOX Weather

A natural recovery can take a while, Westphal estimated that a young crab usually takes about seven or eight years before it is counted in the harvestable population.

The crab industry believes that many members of Alaska’s fleet will face bankruptcy, and total losses could exceed $1 billion.

“What the crab industry is facing is heartbreaking and what’s worse is that it is unnecessary. It didn’t have to be this way,” Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, said in a statement “The crab will eventually bounce back and could do so more quickly if the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had taken steps to protect the stock , which the fishermen themselves request.”

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