Alaska Canceled Snow Crab Season for the First Time Ever Because All the Crabs Are Gone

Researchers have yet to come up with a cause for the crabs' disappearance, but they have already agreed—climate change is a main factor. 
Crabs in a net.
Image: Getty Images

For the first time in history, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has canceled snow crab season due to the dwindling numbers of crabs available. This decision follows a report released in August that showed that snow crab abundance in Alaska is on a steep decline, with stocks down 90 percent in the last two years. Researchers have yet to come up with a cause for this decline, but they have already agreed—climate change is a main factor. 

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“Understanding crab fishery closures have substantial impacts on harvesters, industry, and communities, ADF&G must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks,” the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated in a press release. “Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock. Efforts to advance our science and understanding of crab population dynamics are underway.”

The Bering Sea, the habitat of these crabs, faced unprecedented warming from 2017 through 2019. Snow crabs, which thrive in cold water, could no longer survive in these warming waters. Still, studies found that the snow crabs did not migrate to colder habitats, which was why fishers still held out hope for finding their catches in their usual grounds heading into the 2021 season. Fishermen were blindsided by their empty nets. Gabriel Prout, a commercial farmer, told the Washington Post, “It was a struggle. We were pulling up close to blank pots. We’d be searching several miles of ocean floor and not even pulling up 100 crabs. We were grinding away and barely caught what we were allowed to catch.”

Snow crabs are the second of Alaska’s three major crab stocks to collapse, the remaining available stock being the bairdi crab. In 2021, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game canceled the king crab harvest for the first time since the 1990s and it remains closed for the upcoming season. 

The crab fishery closures are devastating to Alaskan crab fishers, who in past years have grossed more than $200 million from snow crab sales. “Second and third-generation crab-fishing families will go out of business due to the lack of meaningful protections by decision-makers to help crab stocks recover,” the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers trade association said in a statement. Jamie Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers trade association, told the Washington Post that the crab collapse is affecting blue-collar workers and small family businesses the most. Although the U.S. Department of Commerce is sending $132 million to Alaska for fishery disasters, it will take many years for money to get to those most affected. 

As an estimated one billion crabs have mysteriously disappeared in the last two years, researchers are worried that the unexpected decline in crabs is a precedent for how species can be impacted by quick changes in climate. Climate change has also caused a decline in salmon runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river systems, hurting commercial and recreational fisheries and the communities that rely on salmon for subsistence.