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

Alaska is canceling its upcoming winter season for snow crabs in the Bering Sea for the first time, and is preventing fishermen from catching king crabs in Bristol Bay for the second consecutive year due to a sharp decline in their estimated population.

This week’s announcements by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are a serious blow to fishermen who live off the crabs. They also bring questions to the fore about climate change’s role in the rapid decline of the snow crab population: The number of young snow crabs was at an all-time high just a few years ago, before about 90 percent of the snow crabs mysteriously disappeared. from last season.

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

Salmon travels deep into the Pacific Ocean. As it gets warmer, many “don’t come back.”

“These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fishery,” Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, a trade association that claims to represent some 70 percent of local crab harvesters, said in a statement. “Second and third generation crab fishing families will go bankrupt due to the lack of meaningful protection by decision makers to help restore crab stocks.”

According to a report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which promotes seafood, Alaska’s crab fishery is worth more than $200 million. According to the institute, the state supplies 6 percent of the world’s king, snow, tanner and Dungeness crabs.

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

The industry is a vital source of income for many of the 65 communities that make up the Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program, which reserves portions of the annual crop for remote villages with limited economic opportunities, The Washington Post previously reported.

For about a decade, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented a continued decline in the estimated population of adult male snow crabs — the only harvestable species — in the Bering Sea. But hopes were raised after record numbers of juvenile crabs were spotted on the ocean floor in 2018 and 2019, pointing to a possible boom for future crab seasons.

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

Scientists have suggested that warmer temperatures in recent years may have been responsible for this. Alaska’s summers and oceans have warmed, scientists say, resulting in significantly higher seasonal sea ice loss. The US Environment Protection Agency said in a recent report that rising temperatures have forced species such as snow crabs further north or into deeper seas.

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

A December 2020 study co-authored by Alaska fisheries officials also found that the decline in the geographic size of snow crab habitats may be associated with warming.

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Laura Reiley contributed to this report.

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