Alaska cancels snow crab season for the first time after population collapse


Alaska will for the first time cancel the upcoming winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea and prevent anglers from catching king crabs in Bristol Bay for a second straight year, due to a sharp drop in their estimated population.

This week’s announcements from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game deal a severe blow to anglers who live off crabs. They also bring to the fore questions about the role of climate change in the rapid decline of the snow crab population: the number of juvenile snow crabs was at record highs just a few years ago, before some 90 % snow crabs mysteriously disappear in front of them. of last season.

Alaska officials said they consulted carefully with stakeholders before canceling the season. They said they were aware of the impact of the closures on “fishermen, industry and communities”, but needed to balance economic needs with conservation.

Salmon travel deep in the Pacific. As it warms, many “don’t come back.”

“These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fisheries,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a trade association that says it represents some 70 percent local crabbers, in a report. “Second- and third-generation crab fishing families will shut down due to the lack of meaningful protections from policymakers to help crab stocks recover.”

Alaska’s crabbing industry is worth more than $200 million, says a report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which promotes seafood. The state supplies 6% of the world’s king crabs, snows, tanners and crabs, according to the institute.

Male Alaskan snow crabs can have a shell width of up to 6 inches. King crabs are much larger and eating one in a restaurant can cost hundreds of dollars.

The industry is a crucial source of income for many of the 65 communities that make up the Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program, which reserves a portion of each year’s harvest for remote villages that have opportunities. economic constraints, the Washington Post previously reported.

For about a decade, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented a continuing decline in the estimated population of mature male snow crabs — the only species allowed to be harvested — in the Bering Sea. But hopes have been raised after record numbers of juvenile crabs were spotted on the ocean floor in 2018 and 2019, suggesting a possible boom for future crabbing seasons.

But for reasons that are not yet entirely clear, the population appears to have collapsed. The federal government now designates snow crab as overfished. The stock of some red king crabs, the largest commercially caught crab, is considered “below target level” by NOAA in some waters. Last year, Alaska closed king crab season for the first time since the 1990s.

Scientists have expressed suspicions that warmer temperatures in recent years were responsible. Alaska’s summers and oceans have warmed, scientists say, leading to significantly higher seasonal sea ice loss. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a recent report that the rising temperatures may have forced species such as snow crab further north or into deeper seas.

“In the Bering Sea, walleye pollock, snow crab, and Pacific halibut have generally moved away from the coast since the early 1980s,” the EPA wrote. “They also moved north an average of 19 miles.”

One December 2020 study co-authored by fisheries officials in Alaska also revealed that the shrinking geographic size of snow crab habitats may be linked to warming.

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Laura Reiley contributed to this report.


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