For the first time, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has banned the harvest of snow crab this season because local crab levels are so low.
A seasonal break from traps and trawlers may help the population return to healthier levels, but it’s unclear whether the worsening effects of climate change will alter the industry forever, making it more folklore than an economic anchor for local communities.
Scientists and regulators will monitor the situation in the coming months as they weigh the competing interests of conservation and livelihoods and figure out what the next season will look like.
“Recognizing that the closure of the crab fishery has significant impacts on harvesters, the industry and communities, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game must balance these impacts with the need for long-term conservation and sustainability of crab stocks,” he said. “Bering Sea snow crab management must now focus on conservation and recovery given the state of the stock. Efforts to understand our science and cancer population dynamics are ongoing.
Whatever they decide will have reverberations around the world, as the climate and biodiversity crisis shakes the various industries and communities that depend on wildlife, including farming, fishing, tourism and more.
3 Key Things You Need to Know About the Endangered Alaskan Snow Crab
Warming oceans have reduced snow crab habitat, but overfishing has exacerbated the problem.
If temperatures continue to rise at their current rate, 90% of marine life could disappear by the end of this century.
Countries have the opportunity to restore marine ecosystems by phasing out fossil fuels and developing legislative fisheries policies.
What happened to the snow crab?
Population surveys in 1980 It is estimated that there are about 4 billion snow crabs In the seas off the coast of Alaska. In 2021, this number dropped to about 250 million.
The leading narrative attributes this decline to climate change. Few parts of the world have warmed as fast as Alaska, with temperatures rising by 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1925. As the ocean absorbs most of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, this means that the waters around Alaska will warm even more. .
Snow crabs depend on the formation of snow ice in the Bering Sea to create a strip of extremely cold water on the ocean floor. It is in this ice layer that young crabs can grow without the threat of predators. But in recent years, the snow ice has retreated and this cold sanctuary has shrunk, leaving the crabs more exposed.
This means that rapidly reducing greenhouse gases to stabilize global temperatures will give crabs the best chance of survival, especially since animals can migrate to safer areas and adapt given enough time.
But one Covering a Twitter thread by science writer Spencer Roberts It shows that there’s more to the story than climate change, and that it’s not just natural predators that take advantage of exposed snow crabs.
Fishing vessels took the opportunity to explore previously inaccessible waters to catch crabs in their breeding grounds. Using satellite images and fishing logs, Roberts shows that fishing vessels are trawling open crab positions when they are most vulnerable. Roberts argues that this overfishing, thanks to lax regulatory policies, has actually pushed crabs to catastrophic lows.
“Evidence suggests that melting sea ice has created an opportunity for fishing vessels to remove crustaceans in previously inaccessible habitats during the winter,” concludes Roberts.
What is the bigger picture?
Our current era of climate change is not a natural phenomenon. It is driven by a global economy that prioritizes financial gain over the well-being of communities and the environment, and allows clearly harmful activities to continue if they make money.
The fishing industry is a perfect microcosm of the cumulative damage caused by this system.
For decades, fishing vessels have pushed their catch loads to higher and higher volumes with gear like massive trawl nets that strip entire ecosystems of animal habitats, dragging and killing countless unintended prey species in the process. At the same time, industrial fishing vessels have released large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and the waters are heavily polluted with chemical waste and old equipment that traps other animals.
The forms of sustainable fishing that prevailed in the past have all but disappeared, as have concepts of “honorable harvest” where you only take what you need and respect ecological limits, the winner takes all, and you are pushed out with zero sum. an economic ethos that runs roughshod over environments for profit.
In the last few decades, fish populations around the world have been driven to dangerous levels, hunted and destroyed. Along with the relentless threat of industrial fishing, climate change has made many habitats unsuitable. Coral reefs, an abundant safe haven for ecological flourishing, have been scorched by marine heat waves and often reduced to lifeless fossils.
Alaskan snow crabs are just one example of the damage this multifaceted attack can do to a species. Their future survival depends on the restructuring of maritime and economic policies around the world.
What should be done?
Conservation of both marine species and sustainable livelihoods fishing requires several interventions.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game made the right move in suspending the fishing season to allow snow crabs to temporarily recover. Other governments around the world that have seen similar declines should follow suit.
But any break should be coupled with economic support for affected fishermen. In the case of Alaskan lobster fishermen, financial aid needs must be met so that they can get through the coming months without difficulty. If snow crabs never return to levels stable enough to restore historic fishing quotas, going forward, they need financial assistance to transition to other forms of fishing or other industries.
When and if snow crabs recover, new fisheries policies must be adopted to ensure that their breeding grounds are protected, and population levels must be constantly monitored to prevent overfishing. Once these policies are in place, aggressive enforcement against bad actors must become the norm to prevent the black market operations that flourish today.
Countries should then cooperate globally to ensure that waters outside their local fishing zones are properly protected and that protected areas are expanded.
More broadly, if crabs are to catch on in the future, the environmental crisis sweeping the planet must be addressed. If temperatures continue to rise on their current trajectory, up to 90% of marine species will disappear by the end of the century.
This means fossil fuel use must be halved by the end of the decade and then exponentially until emissions are zero. The fishing industry can play a role in this by investing in more efficient vehicles, using less hazardous fuels, improving port and dock policies, and generally limiting time on the water.
Snow crabs are an iconic species and fishing is the main occupation. Only a just shift away from fossil fuels and towards a regenerative economy can keep them both intact for future generations.