Pacific Northwest
Bering Sea snow crabsBering Sea snow crab support an iconic Alaska seafood harvest, but a crash in population since 2018 has triggered the first-ever closure of the fishery. (Photo provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

AK - Crab Fishery Collapse Seen as Warning About a Changing Bering Sea

Less than five years ago, prospects appeared bright for Bering Sea crab fishers. Stocks were abundant and healthy, federal biologists said, and prices were near all-time highs.

Now two dominant crab harvests have been canceled for lack of fish. For the first time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in October canceled the 2022-2023 harvest of Bering Sea snow crab, and it also announced the second consecutive year of closure for another important harvest, that of Bristol Bay red king crab.

What has happened between then and now? A sustained marine heat wave that prevented ice formation in the Bering Sea for two winters, thus vastly altering ocean conditions and fish health.

“We lost billions of snow crab in a matter of months,” said Bob Foy, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, at a public forum held Dec. 12 at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. “We don’t have a smoking gun, if you will. We don’t have one particular event that impacted the snow crab — except the heat wave.”

That heat wave is now over, but its effects linger. A NOAA survey showed an 80% decline in Bering Sea snow crab, from 11.7 billion in 2018 to 1.9 billion this year. It could take six to 10 years to recover, experts told members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which wrapped up a 10-day meeting in Anchorage on Wednesday.

Snow crab may be the “poster child” of climate change, council member Bill Tweit said during deliberations on a rebuilding program that was ultimately approved at the meeting, but much more will be affected by the long-term changes in the ocean.

“It’s going to be more and more a problematic question for us among a broader range of species than just snow crab,” Tweit said.

In the short term, loss of the snow and red king crab harvests is devastating. Direct losses from harvest cancellations this year amount to $287.7 million, according to state estimates. Local governments are suffering, too, like the Aleut community of St. Paul, which relies on the crab harvests for more than 90% of its tax revenue.

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