On October 10, the Alaska Department of Game and Fish canceled the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea for the first time ever. It also canceled Bristol Bay red king crab season for the second year in a row. The announcement came after a population survey revealed an alarming decline in snow crab numbers.  

“From 2018 to 2021, we lost about 90 percent of these animals,” Miranda Westphal, an ADGF biologist, told the New York Times. Scientists don’t know exactly why the crabs disappeared, but they have settled on a plausible theory. During those years, according to Westphal, the Bering Sea “was extremely warm, and the snow crabs likely huddled together in the coolest water they could find.” But as the water temperature increased, so did the crustaceans’ metabolisms—meaning they needed more fuel. “They probably starved to death when there was not enough food,” said Westphal.

In 2018, there were an estimated 8 billion snow crabs in the Bering Sea. By 2021, that number fell to around 1 billion. ADGF officials conceded that canceling the season would have “substantial impacts” on the fishing industry and the communities that rely on it. The agency says it must “now focus on conservation and rebuilding, given the condition of the stock.” 

“These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fisheries and for the hard-working fishermen and communities that depend on them,” Jamie Goen, the executive director of the trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, said in a Facebook post. “Second- and third-generation crab-fishing families will go out of business due to the lack of meaningful protections by decision-makers to help crab stocks recover.”

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About 65 boats usually take part in the snow crab season in the Bering Sea. In 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the commercial harvest of Alaska snow crabs totaled more than 36 million pounds and was valued at more than $101.7 million. While the snow crabs’ current situation is dire, Mark Stichert, the groundfish and shellfish fisheries management coordinator with the ADGF, told CNN there is reason to have “optimism for the future.” Biologists have begun to observe a small number of juvenile crabs in the Bering Sea, though it will be at least three years before they reach maturity and can contribute to repopulating the species.