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Alaska cancels snow crab season, threatening key economic driver


For the primary time, crews in Alaska won’t be braving ice and sea spray to pluck snow crab from the Bering Sea. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled the snow crab season earlier this week after a catastrophic population crash of the sizable crustaceans. The red king crab season was canceled for the second 12 months in a row, making it a two-pronged disaster for Alaska’s economy and for those whose livelihoods depend on crab. 

“It will be life-changing, if not career-ending, for people,” said Dean Gribble Sr., a 63-year-old crab boat captain who has fished for “opies” — snow crab — for the reason that late Nineteen Seventies. “Loads of these guys with families and children, there isn’t any option aside from getting out. That is where the hammer goes to fall — on the crew.” 

Alaskan ecosystems — that are warming faster than other regions due to their proximity to the North Pole — have been roiled by marine heat waves and other impacts made more likely by climate change. 

Scientists are still evaluating the cause or causes of the snow crab collapse, nevertheless it follows a stretch of record-breaking warmth in Bering Sea waters that spiked in 2019. Miranda Westphal, an area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the hotter waters likely contributed to young crabs’ starvation and the stock’s decline. 

Officials hope a halt to this 12 months’s crab harvest will boost each species. At this point, little more could be done. 

“We’re along for the ride. It’s hard to predict or pretend we could have influences on a stock that’s subject to Mother Nature and climate change,” Westphal said. “They need time and space and favorable conditions to rebuild.” 

The snow crab collapse got here as a surprise. Each season, business trawlers complete surveys that estimate species abundance and assess stock. The National Marine Fisheries Service and Alaska Department of Fish and Game co-manage the crab fisheries. 

In 2018, “we saw the biggest pulse of small crab we might ever seen within the history of fishery,” Westphal said. “It was looking really good.” 

The 2019 numbers for small crab remained promising. No survey was accomplished in 2020 due to Covid-19. 

Then, in 2021, “we saw the most important crash we have ever seen in snow crab. That was really unexpected. I do not think anyone saw this coming,” Westphal said. 

Scientists are still evaluating what happened. A number one theory is that water temperatures spiked at a time when huge numbers of young crabs were clustered together. 

In summer, many small snow crab make their habitat in a cold pool that forms on the Bering seafloor. In recent times, which have been dominated by warmer waters and fewer sea ice, these cold pools have been smaller, concentrating crab into tight quarters. 

“They couldn’t take care of it. They couldn’t find enough food. They couldn’t move to colder waters,” Westphal said. “Probably the most plausible explanation might be starvation.” 

Fishing crews have needed to push farther north lately to reap snow crab. 

“The last three years or 4 years of fishing for opies, I’ve needed to go as much as the Russian border and fish,” Gribble, the longtime captain, said. 

Such disruptions could develop into more normal. 

In 2018, Bering Sea winter ice, which is significant for the cold pool, hit its lowest point on record, based on The Seattle Times, which reported that researchers expect such conditions to be typical by midcentury because the climate warms. The newspaper was the primary to report the snow crab season closure. 

The collapse of snow crab can have major effects in Alaska and for crew members who often live in Washington and Oregon. 

A fleet of about 60 vessels harvested snow crab in 2020, grossing about $132 million, based on an economic report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries and the Alaska Fisheries Information Network.

“These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fisheries and for the hard-working fishermen and communities that rely upon them,” Jamie Goen, the manager director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, said in an announcement published on Facebook. 

Crab shapes economies in Alaskan towns which are home to processing plants.

As a substitute of canceling the snow crab harvest last 12 months, officials allowed a small slice of the standard catch.

The Seattle Times reported that St. Paul, Alaska, last 12 months lost greater than $3 million in tax revenue — about half its yearly budget — due to diminished snow crab harvest and the closure of the red king crab season.  

Hope stays for snow crab. Scientists found increased cold pool coverage in 2020-2021, following the record lows seen from 2017-2019. Probably the most recent survey also saw an uptick in small snow crab. 

“We are able to protect them and get them into the system,” Westphal said.

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