Alaskan crab season canceled after billions disappear


Alaska’s crab harvest has been suspended for the first time in recent years after billions of crustaceans disappeared from the cold and treacherous waters of the Bering Sea.

The Alaska Fisheries Commission and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council reported last week that the Bering Sea snow crab population had fallen below the regulatory threshold for opening the fishery.

But the real numbers behind that decision are startling: The snow crab population declined from about 8 billion in 2018 to 1 billion in 2021, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game researcher Benjamin Daly.

“The snow crab is by far the most abundant of the Bering Sea crabs caught commercially,” Daly told CNN. “So it’s a remarkable shock and awe of the many billions missing from the population, which includes all women and children.”

The Bristol Bay red crab harvest will also be closed for the second year in a row, agencies have announced.

Officials cited overfishing as a reason for canceling seasons. Mark Stichert, terrestrial fish and shellfish fisheries management coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Game, said more crabs were being fished out of the oceans than could be replaced naturally.

“So there were more population outflows than inflows,” Stichert explained at Thursday’s meeting.

Between surveys in 2021 and 2022, he said, mature snow crabs declined 40 percent, leaving 45 million pounds in the entire Bering Sea.

“It’s a scary number, to be clear,” Stichert said.

But calling the Bering Sea crab population “overfished” – the technical definition that triggers conservation measures – says nothing about the reason for its collapse.

“We call it overfishing because of the scale,” Michael Litzow, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Kodiak lab, told CNN. “But it wasn’t overfishing that caused the collapse, that much is clear.”

Litzow says human-induced climate change is an important factor in the crabs’ alarming disappearance.

Snow crabs are a cold-water species and are mostly found in areas where the water temperature is below 2 degrees Celsius, Litzow says. As the oceans warm and sea ice disappears, the ocean around Alaska is becoming inhospitable to the species.

“There have been a number of attribution studies done in 2018 that have looked at specific temperatures in the Bering Sea or the Bering Sea ice sheet, and in those attribution studies, they have concluded that these low temperatures and ice conditions in the Bering Sea are the result of global warming,” Litzow said.

Temperatures around the Arctic have warmed four times faster than the rest of the planet, scientists have reported. Climate change has caused a rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic region, especially in Alaska’s Bering Sea, which has increased global warming.

“Closing fisheries due to low abundance and continuing research are the primary efforts to restore populations at this time,” Ethan Nichols, assistant range management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told CNN.

Stichert also said there may be “optimism for the future” because some tiny little snow crabs are starting to show up in the system. But it can take at least three to four years before they reach maturity and contribute to population growth.

“It’s clear optimism,” Litzow said. “That’s better than not seeing them, sure. We get a little bit warmer every year and that variability is greater in arctic ecosystems and high latitude ecosystems, so if we get a cooler period, that would be good news for the snow crab.’