Every winter, Alaskan fishers head out to the Bering Sea to harvest snow crabs. However, on October 10, 2022, officials announced that the 2022/2023 snow crab season had been canceled due to a sharp decline in their population. Ocean surveys indicate that the number of snow crabs has shrunk from an estimated 11.9 billion in 2018 to about 1.9 billion in 2022.
"Snow crab is by far the most abundant of all the Bering Sea crab species that is caught commercially," said Benjamin Daly, a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "So the shock and awe of many billions missing from the population is worth noting – and that includes all the females and babies."
Researchers are not sure why the crabs have vanished. But they suspect climate change may have played a big role. Young snow crabs thrive in the cold water pools formed on the ocean floor by the melting sea ice. However, in 2018 and 2019, the Bering Sea water temperatures were much warmer than usual. This reduced the available cold water pools.
Scientists speculate the young crabs may have been forced to live in smaller areas. The limited food supply may have caused them to die of starvation. The cramped conditions could also have led to the spread of deadly diseases. Another theory is that the warmer waters made the young crabs vulnerable to predators like the Pacific cod. These fish typically avoid the chilly temperatures of the cold pools.
Solving the mystery of the missing snow crabs will take time. Meanwhile, the unexpected ban has left Alaskan crab fishers scrambling to find other sources of income. Hopefully, the snow crab population will be revived before next year's fishing season.
Resources: CNN.com, theGuardian.com, Alaskajournal.com