Bering Sea snow crab population continues steep decline
October 18, 2023
A year after state officials imposed unprecedented shutdowns on crab fishing in the Bering Sea, the snow crab population is in even worse shape than it was last year, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled the 2022-23 harvest.
Survey results were presented Oct. 4 in Anchorage to the advisory panel of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which is charged by the federal government with managing fisheries in the region. The presentation was by Mike Litzow, a National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist who is one of the leaders of the council’s team that plans for crab fisheries.
“We’ve never seen the abundance this low. We’ve never seen a decline as great as what we saw from 2018 to 2021. That was completely unprecedented. And we just continue to see those small animals dying out of the population without being replaced, so I think it’s fair to say we’re in an unprecedented situation for snow crab,” Litzow told the advisory panel. He directs NOAA Fisheries’ Kodiak laboratory and shellfish assessment program.
Snow crab numbers crashed 80% from 2018 to last year, according to NOAA surveys. It will take several years for that population to recover, if recovery is possible, experts have said.
The state has closed the snow crab fishery again this year.
For Bristol Bay red king crab, another population for which commercial harvests were canceled last year, the picture is marginally better.
The abundance of mature red king crab females was up 46% since last year, the survey found — though that is an increase from levels of mature females that were the lowest since at least the mid-1990s. Abundance of mature males in the Bristol Bay red king crab population was 21% lower than last year, the survey showed, and those numbers are also lower than counts for most years stretching back to the 1970s.
Last year’s closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was the second consecutive shutdown year for that harvest, which was also unprecedented.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages Bering Sea crab fisheries in cooperation with federal regulators.
Litzow, in his presentation, noted that there are signs of long-term transformation in the crab populations’ marine environment.
While bottom-water temperatures in the red king crab habitat were normal this past year, with the usual pocket of cold lingering, there has been a gradual acidification of that water over the past two decades, he said. If that continues, it will become difficult for crabs to maintain their shells, he said.
Another concern is the boom in sockeye salmon abundance in the eastern Bering Sea, Litzow said. Those sockeye may be preying on crab larvae, he explained.
For crab fishermen and the coastal communities that depend on crab harvesting, the collapses have been devastating, said industry and local representatives.
“The crab world is no longer the world that we used to know,” Heather McCarty, representing the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, said in testimony to the North Pacific Fishery Council’s scientific and statistical committee.
She said the crab disasters have been especially hard on St. Paul, a Pribilof Island village that is home to one of the world’s biggest crab processing plants and has depended on crab harvests for most of its tax revenues. “There might not be a St. Paul that’s recognizable in 10 years,” she said.
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