The harvest of Alaska spider crabs was canceled for the first time ever after billions of crustaceans disappeared from the cold and treacherous waters of the Bering Sea in recent years.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced last week that the snow crab population in the Bering Sea has fallen below the regulatory threshold to open fishing.
But the actual numbers behind this decision are shocking: the snow crab population has shrunk from about 8 billion in 2018 to 1 billion in 2021, according to Benjamin Daly, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game.
“Spider crab is by far the most abundant of all commercially captured Bering Sea crab species,” Daly told CNN. “So it’s worth noting the shock and amazement of the many billions of people missing from the population, and that includes all girls and children.”
Bristol Bay’s red king crab harvest will also be closed for the second consecutive year, the agencies announced.
Officials cited overfishing as a reason for canceling seasons. Mark Stichert, the bottom fish and shellfish fisheries management coordinator with the State Department of Game and Fisheries, said more crabs are being caught in the oceans than could be naturally replaced.
“So there was more removal from the population than input,” Stichert explained at the meeting on Thursday.
Between surveys conducted in 2021 and 2022, he said, mature male snow crabs fell by about 40 percent, with an estimated 45 million pounds remaining in the entire Bering Sea.
“It’s a scary number, just to be clear,” Stichert said.
But calling the Bering Sea crab population “over-exploited” – a technical definition that activates conservation measures – says nothing about the cause of its collapse.
“We call it overfishing because of the size level,” Michael Litzow, director of the Kodiak laboratory for NOAA Fisheries, told CNN. “But it wasn’t overfishing that caused the collapse, that’s clear.”
Litzow says human-caused climate change is a significant factor in the alarming disappearance of crabs.
Snow crabs are cold-water species and are mostly found in areas where the water temperature is below 2 degrees Celsius, Litzow says. As the oceans warm up and the sea ice disappears, the ocean around Alaska is becoming inhospitable to the species.
“There have been numerous attribution studies that examined specific temperatures in the ice cover of the Bering Sea or the Bering Sea in 2018, and in those attribution studies, they concluded that those temperatures and low ice conditions in the sea of Bering are a consequence of global warming, ”Litzow said.
Scientists reported that temperatures around the Arctic warmed four times faster than the rest of the planet. Climate change has triggered rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic region, particularly in Alaska’s Bering Sea, which in turn has amplified global warming.
“Closure of fisheries due to low abundance and continued research are the main efforts to restore populations at this point,” Ethan Nichols, assistant biologist in area management at the Department of Fisheries and CNN, told CNN. of Alaskan game.
Stichert also said there may be some “optimism for the future” as some small juvenile spider crabs are starting to appear in the system. But it could be at least another three or four years before they reach maturity and contribute to population regrowth.
“It’s a glimmer of optimism,” Litzow said. “It’s better than not seeing them, for sure. Every year we get a little warmer and that variability is greater in Arctic ecosystems and high-latitude ecosystems, so if we could get a cooler period it would be good news for spider crab.