Vanishing Snow Crab Crisis: How it’s Devastating Washington State
The absence of billions of crabs suddenly missing from the Bering Sea has caused repercussions that have hit Washington and its once-thriving fishing industry hard.
10 Billion Snow Crabs Missing Cancels Another Crabbing Season
Over 90% of Alaskan snow crabs have suddenly gone missing over the last 3 years causing the Alaska Department of Fish to cancel the crabbing season for the second straight year. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found in a study started in 2021, that 10 billion snow crabs which once covered almost the entire floor of the Bering Sea are almost now completely gone. They estimate that only 1 billion of the 11 billion crabs usually found at the peak of their season are left after another large drop in population numbers from last year. Not only did they close the Alaskan snow crab season for the second year but they also canceled the Alaskan king crab season as well. The change will hugely affect the fishing communities and economies of both Alaska and Washington State.
Where Did All the Alaskan Snow Crabs Go?
Scientists are still trying to figure out the exact answer, but say it is a combination of multiple events that are likely the cause. They do not think the snow crabs migrated to another location or have been "overfished" by some unknown other country or group of fishermen. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists also did not find any evidence of population movement or increases in snow crab numbers in nearby waters explaining the decline. Overfishing was found unlikely as the cause because the crabs were missing even in their young stages before they were big enough to be caught by fishermen. Instead, scientists are looking at the main cause of the event to be the warming waters of the Bering Sea. In 2018 and 2019, the Bering Sea experienced a 2-3° temperature increase. Snow and king crabs prefer waters near 0°, and scientists think even the slight change caused a "red flag" event that affected different aspects leading to the sudden fall in population. The warmer waters make crabs huddle in small cold pools which creates greater competition/fighting for food and also contributes to the spread of disease. The warming water and lack of ice cover also make juvenile snow crabs more likely to be eaten by predators like Cod.
How Canceling the Alaskan Snow Crab Season Affects Washington State
Did you know that around 57% of all Alaskan snow crab fleet vessels are registered to Washington State addresses? The economic impact of snow crab from the Bering Sea was estimated to bring $62.6 million of revenue to King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties alone according to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The complete cancelation of both the snow and king crab fishing seasons for the last two seasons is expected to lose over $287 million in revenue for Washington State according to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Not only are fishing crews and captains stuck financially but there is no financial relief coming anytime soon to help. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce needs to first declare a disaster with Congress then having to assign funds "if approved". Fishermen are still waiting for the $12.9 million in disaster funds that were assigned after the cancellation of the 2019-20 Bairdi crab season. There is hope the snow crabs will return next year with water temperatures of the Bering Sea almost back to normal but it is still much to soon to tell. Until then, not only will it be much more difficult and expensive for Washington residents to find their favorite seafood but the State will also be without all the revenue generated from this very important northwest industry. Learn more about the struggles Washington State fishermen are dealing with at Crosscut.com.
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Gallery Credit: AJ Brewster