Billions of snow crabs have disappeared from Alaska waters

Experts fear the likely causes include increased predation and stresses from warming water.

In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015, imported Dungeness crabs from the Northwest are shown for sale at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco
Last year’s snow crab harvest was the smallest in more than 40 years [File: Eric Risberg/AP Photo]

Scientists have been left perplexed after billions of crabs and crustaceans reportedly disappeared mysteriously in the Bering Sea off the US state of Alaska in the last several years.

Ben Daly, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), told US media outlet CNN the snow crab population shrank from about 8 billion in 2018 to 1 billion in 2021.

“Snow crab is by far the most abundant of all the Bering Sea crab species that is caught commercially,” Daly said. “So the shock and awe of many billions missing from the population is worth noting – and that includes all the females and babies.”

While the reasons for the dramatic fall in the crab population are still being researched, experts fear the likely cause includes increased predation and stresses from warming water on the cold-water species.

“Environmental conditions are changing rapidly,” Daly told CBS News. “We’ve seen warm conditions in the Bering Sea the last couple of years, and we’re seeing a response in a cold-adapted species, so it’s pretty obvious this is connected. It is a canary in a coal mine for other species that need cold water.”

The sharp drop in their numbers forced the ADF&G last week announced the cancellation of the Alaska snow crab harvest for the first time ever in Alaska, the United States’ largest state.

It said that while there would be “substantial impacts” on harvesters, the department has to balance the impacts with the “need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks”.

The authority also scrapped the Bristol Bay red king crab harvest.

Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers said some crabbers will be going out of business as a result of the cancellation.

“This is so unbelievable that this is happening. We have third-generation fishermen who are going to go out of business,” AP news agency quoted Geon as saying.

Last year’s snow crab harvest of 2,540 tonnes was the smallest in more than 40 years. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the crab fishing industry in Alaska is worth approximately $200m.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies