Alaska snow crab fishing has been canceled for the first time in recent years after billions of crustaceans disappeared from the cold, dangerous waters of the Bering Sea.
The Alaska Fisheries Commission and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council announced last week that snow crab populations in the Bering Sea are below regulatory thresholds for open fisheries.
But the actual numbers behind the decision are staggering: According to Benjamin Daly, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the snow crab population has declined from about 8 billion in 2018 to 1 billion in 2021.
“Snow crabs are by far the largest number of Bering crabs ever fished commercially,” Daly told CNN. “Therefore, the shock and awe of the billions of people missing – and this includes all women and babies – is worth noting.”
The Bristol Bay red king crab harvest will also be closed for the second year in a row, the agencies announced.
Officials cited overfishing as a reason to cancel the season. Mark Stichert, groundfish and shellfish fisheries management coordinator for the state’s Department of Fish and Game, said more crabs are being harvested from the ocean than can be naturally substituted.
“So more is being removed from the population than is being put in,” Stichter explained at Thursday’s meeting.
Between surveys in 2021 and 2022, mature male snow crabs declined by about 40 percent, with an estimated 45 million pounds remaining in the entire Bering Sea, he said.
“It’s a scary number, just to be clear,” Stichter said.
But calling the Bering Sea crab population “overfished” — the technical definition that triggers conservation measures — does not explain why it collapsed.
“We call it overfishing because it’s so massive,” Michael Lizzo, director of NOAA’s Kodiak Laboratory for Fisheries, told CNN. “But it wasn’t overfishing that caused the collapse, which is very clear.”
Human-caused climate change is a big factor in the surprising disappearance of crabs, Litzow said.
Snow crabs are cold-water species, and the vast majority live in areas with water temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, Litzow said. As oceans warm and sea ice disappears, the ocean around Alaska has become unsuitable for the species.
“There are a number of attribution studies looking at specific temperatures in the Bering Sea or the Bering Sea ice sheet in 2018, and in those attribution studies, they conclude that these temperatures and low ice conditions in the Bering Sea are the result of global warming,” Litzow said. Say.
Scientists report that temperatures around the Arctic are warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. Climate change has triggered a rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic, particularly in Alaska’s Bering Sea, which in turn has contributed to global warming.
“Closing fisheries and continuing research due to low abundance is currently a major effort to restore populations,” Ethan Nichols, assistant area management biologist at the Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game, told CNN.
Stichert also said there could be some “optimism about the future” as some small snow crabs are starting to show up in the system. But they may still take at least three to four years to reach maturity and promote population regeneration.
“It’s a glimmer of optimism,” Litzow said. “It’s better than not seeing them, of course. We’re warming a little bit every year, and there’s more variability in Arctic ecosystems and higher latitude ecosystems, so if we can get a cooler period, that’s a big deal for snow crabs. good news.”