Marine biologist perplexed by snow crab disappearance

Published: Aug. 22, 2022 at 8:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s a mystery perplexing marine biologists that could lead to a loss of one of Alaska’s most prized seafood exports — the Bering Sea snow crab.

Many theories have been hypothesized as to what is causing the declining crab populations throughout Alaska, ranging all the way from migration of the crustaceans to predators taking them out.

However, Erin Fedewa, a research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the disappearance of this Alaskan staple could be a warning about how quickly a fishery can be wiped out in a new, shifting world.

“The system is becoming more unpredictable and I think that is what makes it very difficult to forecast what could happen in the future with a stock like snow crab,” Fedewa said.

Each year, NOAA conducts a bottom trawl survey to assess commercial crab stock. In 2019 they noticed a slight decline, but couldn’t imagine it foreshadowing what was to come. In the last two years snow crab numbers, Fedewa says, have dropped 80%.

“It’s just like the snow crab had disappeared. The net would come up, they would dump it on the table, and stations that we’ve historically caught several thousand snow crab would be maybe a couple hundred,” Fedewa said.

According to Fedewa, climate change is turning the Bering Sea from an arctic state to a sub-arctic state through a process called borealization, which means the waters are getting warmer, and therefore crabs are migrating. The effects of this are likely to be long-lasting.

“It’s obviously the assumption that if we don’t see more animals, specifically mature male snow crab entering the system then it makes the future more and more uncertain in terms of whether or not fisheries will stay open,” Fedewa says.

From this point, NOAA is dedicated to continuing to look at mechanisms that lead to the decline and trying to understand what happened to the stock.