Alaska’s snow crab population drops by billions (90%) in three years so no 2022 catch allowed
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Alaska Cancels Snow Crab Season Amid Population Declines

Biologists say the warming of the waters of the Bering Sea in recent years is a possible factor in the decline of snow crabs.

Snow crabs fished in Alaska.
Snow crabs fished in Alaska. Credit…Alaska Department of Fish and Game

By Johnny Diaz

Oct. 14, 2022

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said this week that it had canceled the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea for the first time because of a decline in the crab population. The fishing industry described the cancellation as a crushing blow.

Biologists say the warming of the waters of the Bering Sea in recent years is a possible factor in the decline of the snow crab population. The number of crabs has now fallen below the threshold for opening a fishery, the fish and game department said in a statement, adding that the Bering Sea snow crab season, which typically opens on Oct. 15, would be canceled this year.

Crabbers and industry officials were upset with the state’s decision to cancel the season.

Miranda Westphal, a biologist with the state’s fish and game department, said on Friday that it was investigating why the crab population was declining.

“From 2018 to 2021, we lost about 90 percent of these animals,” Ms. Westphal said.

Alaska is the fastest warming state in the United States, according to Climate Central, an independent group of scientists who research and report about changing climate. And rising temperatures in Alaska’s cold waters may be killing the crustaceans.

“Snow crabs are an Arctic species,” Ms. Westphal said, noting that they need cold water to survive.

She said that between 2018 and 2019, the Bering Sea “was extremely warm and the snow crab population kind of huddled together in the coolest water they could find.”

When the water warms, their metabolism increases, requiring more fuel, she said.

“They probably starved to death and there was not enough food,” she said.

Ms. Westphal said disease could have also been a factor.

“We don’t know and we are never going to actually know because the crabs are gone,” she said.

Snow crabs, which have hard rounded shells, are the smallest commercially harvested species in the Bering Sea, Ms. Westphal said. A male snow crab can reach 6 inches in shell width, and females seldom grow larger than 3 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Snow crab are found off the coast of Alaska in the Bering, Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

About 65 boats usually take part in the snow crab season in the Bering Sea.

“It’s going to be very devastating to small businesses like myself and very devastating to the crab fleet,” said Gabriel Prout, 32, who runs his own fishing vessel business with his father and brothers in Kodiak, Alaska.

He said before the collapse, he was catching 500,000 to 750,000 pounds of snow crabs on average each season.

Mr. Prout said he hoped that the state could expedite “the disaster relief request we have put forth.”

Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, an Alaskan trade group, said in a statement, “These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fisheries and for the hard-working fishermen and communities that depend on them.”

He predicted crab-fishing families would go out of business.

State officials said in the cancellation announcement that although they knew the closing of the season would be hard for the industry and for communities, the agency “must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks.”

Ms. Westphal said she hoped that halting the season “will protect this portion of the population that will mate and produce more babies.”

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Johnny Diaz is a general assignment reporter covering breaking news. He previously worked for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and The Boston Globe. @johnnydiaz__

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