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Crab Decline Impacts Indigenous Alaskans

Crab
Courtesy of Gillfoto (Wikimedia CC0)

Unfortunately, Alaska’s snow and king crab populations suffered losses during recent seasons, impacting Indigenous Alaskan livelihoods. Many people think it is due to the Bering Sea warming. Others are unsure what caused the surprising decline in king and snow crabs. But everyone agrees that something drastic happened to cause the disappearance of billions of crustaceans.

This summer’s survey results revealed: “A more than 99% drop in immature females compared to those found three years earlier, as well as substantial drops in mature males and females.”

Speaking about the survey, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the number of crabs fell below the threshold for opening a fishery. As a result, the fish and game canceled the winter Bering Sea snow crab season for the first time in American history. Moreover, the agency closed the Bristol Bay red king crab harvest for the second consecutive year.

The Seattle Times reported that scientists are racing to figure out what happened to the crabs. Some death theories include the crabs moving into Russian waters; predators killing them, eating each other; or scuttling off the continental shelf without scientists noticing.

Is Climate Change Behind Crab Collapse?

Crab
Courtesy of Brian Hoffman (Flickr CC0)

The climate crisis and crab population decline are likely connected events.

Global climate change threatens the entire Bering Sea food chain, according to the NOAA Arctic Program’s website.

Sea ice is crucial to the success of the Bering Sea’s eastern shelf. Typically, Alaska’s shelf has an incredibly productive ecosystem however, ice volume decreases negatively affect annual crab harvests.

Record-breaking temperatures, the decline in sea ice, and the lack of snow are impacting marine mammals, fish, seabirds, crabs, and the ecosystem as a whole. The proof exists along the coastlines and in the waters. Furthermore, the climate crisis is revealed through the hardships Indigenous Alaskans face in bringing harvests home to their families and communities.

Marine biologists and those in the fishing industry worry that the abrupt crustacean population crash is a signal or warning about the speed that this industry could be wiped out.

Economic Consequences of Harvest Closure

Crab
Courtesy of Gordon Leggett (Wikimedia CC0)

More than 40% of the annual fish and shellfish caught in the United States come from the Bering Sea, averaging $1 billion annually.

Being a fisherman is a lifestyle, not a 9-to-5 job. It spans generations in many Indigenous Alaskan families. The NOAA Arctic Program reports that there are over 70 Indigenous communities in the Bering Sea region whose stability comes from their access to food resources.

Fisheries and processing plants’ employees met with North Pacific Fishery Management Council on October 5, 2022. During the meeting, a woman whose family owns three North Pacific crab boats explained her concerns: “First and foremost, we are a business based on fishing crabs in the Bering Sea. But for us, it’s not just a business, it’s a way of life.”

Written by Cathy Milne-Ware

Sources:

The Washington Post: Alaska’s snow crabs have disappeared. Where they went is a mystery. By Laura Reiley
The New York Times: Alaska Cancels Snow Crab Season Amid Population Declines; by Johnny Diaz
The Seattle Times: Alaska snow crab harvest slashed by nearly 90% after population crash in a warming Bering Sea; by Hal Bernton
KING 5: Fishermen fear going out of business after Alaska cancels snow and king crab harvest
NOAA Arctic Program: Voices from the Front Lines of a Changing Bering Sea; by M.L. Druckenmiller, R. Daniel. and M. Johnson
NOAA Arctic Program: Recent Warming in the Bering Sea and Its Impact on the Ecosystem; by P.J. Stabeno, R.L. Thoman, and K. Wood

Featured and Top Image by Gillfoto Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Brian Hoffman’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image by Gordan Leggett Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License

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