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AK - What killed off billions of Alaska’s snow crabs?

One billion snow crabs disappeared from the Bering Sea. No one is sure why — but climate change is suspect #1

For the first time in recorded history, snow crab season was canceled in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.

On October 10, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service cited concerns about the reduction in the snow crab population, which numbered in the billions before their recent mysterious decimation. As the population fell by over 90 percent, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G)  canceled the season to allow the population to rebound in hopes that it would return to replacement levels by next year.

"Understanding crab fishery closures have substantial impacts on harvesters, industry, and communities, ADF&G must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks," the official advisory says. "Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock."

But while experts know that the snow crab population has decreased tremendously, the cause is not entirely clear. But among the culprits, global climate change perhaps looms largest.

Divergent hypotheses

While the scientific community is torn on the precise cause of the Bering Sea crabs, the majority of the blame falls on global warming. Yet some think the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the governing body of U.S. fisheries and marine conservation efforts — played a larger role in the snow crab's disappearance than they publicized.

A whistleblower who once worked with NOAA released a report in 2021 in Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, detailing supposed data falsification and other dishonest activities NOAA conducted. The report claims that "scientific fraud" is why the snow crab population fell to such extreme lows.

The report says that NOAA does not mention overfishing and aggressive scraping of the ocean floor (where snow crabs lay their eggs) as a main reason behind decreasing crab numbers. Instead, they "attributed the sudden loss of millions of crabs to 'a drastic increase in natural mortality' and 'massive die-offs,' claims for which no evidence ever materialized."

Spencer Roberts, a writer and ecologist, published a now-viral Twitter thread on the snow crab population collapse, where he questioned NOAA's reliability as a data source. "There is an institutionalized corruption problem within NOAA, in which fisheries management councils and advisory panels, who play instrumental roles in setting quotas and issuing permits, require a given proportion of their seats be occupied by representatives of the fishing industry," he writes.

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