Because of the severe drop in the snow crab population, authorities canceled Alaska's Bering Sea snow crab season for the first time in history. According to reports, the snow crab population in the Bering Sea, where the cold-water species lives, has declined to "alarming" levels.
The snow crab population has been below target in recent years, but not to the point where authorities consider the harvest should be halted. Last year’s harvest was recorded as being the smallest in 40 years.
But it's different and much scarier this year. According to the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, who jointly oversee the snow crab fishery with NOAA, the current snow crab population has dropped below the regulatory threshold.
In studies conducted between 2021 and 2022, the number of adult male snow crabs dropped by 40%. According to the research, this suggests that more snow crabs were collected than could be replenished naturally.
Crab fisheries management
Currently, the Alaska snow crab fishery is managed using the "three S's"—sex, size, and season. This means that only male crabs of a specified size are permitted to be caught, and fishing is prohibited during mating and molting seasons.
There are also real-time satellite-based electronic systems to report and monitor landings. Once the harvest limit is reached, managers close fisheries.
These guidelines serve to ensure that crabs may breed and replace those that are taken. Every year, management establishes the harvest limit for the next fishing season based on the most current crab population estimations.
What does this mean for the fishing community?
The Bering Sea snow crab is a vital economic driver in the area. The crustacean supports many small- to large-scale commercial crabbers and communities, so the closing of the harvest season will likely cause economic devastation. In 2016 alone, for instance, harvests were estimated to be valued at $280 million. Making matters worse is that, aside from the Bering Sea snow crab season, the red king crab season was also closed for the second year in a row, also because of very low populations.
To try to restore the populations and rebuild stocks, the authorities have decided on closing the fisheries while continuing research. However, it’s rapidly becoming clear that the warming ocean and disappearing sea ice are significantly contributing to the steep decline. According to one popular theory, water temperatures rose during a period when large numbers of baby crabs gathered, causing the population to crash. The same sea ice loss and rising ocean temperatures are also affecting the migration of fish species.
But not all hope is lost, as some young snow crabs are also starting to appear again. It will take an estimated three to four years, however, before they reach maturity and contribute to the increase in population.
What can we anglers do?
Conservation efforts are always complex, and usually it takes industry-wide changes to make an impact. That doesn’t mean, though, that small steps towards sustainability by recreational fishermen and fisherwomen are essentially meaningless. In the end, we still all share the same waters and the same planet. Our choices will inevitably affect our environment and other creatures who also call it home.
That’s why we at Baitium make it one of our missions to use sustainable materials in our products. We care deeply about giving back to the ocean and wildlife conservation efforts. And with 269,000 tons of plastic pieces currently in our oceans, plus 8 million more making their way into them daily, it's time we took action to protect our waters.