Alaska crabbers are reacting after officials canceled the fall-winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea for the first time, in addition to the Bristol Bay red king crab harvest.
According to a press release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, an analysis of trawl survey results for the Bering Sea snow crab with the National Marine Fisheries Service found the stock was estimated to be below the regulatory threshold for opening a fishery.
"Therefore, Bering Sea snow crab will remain closed for the 2022/23 season. ADF&G appreciates and carefully considered all input from crab industry stakeholders prior to making this decision. 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. Management of Bering Sea snow crab must now focus on conservation and rebuilding given the condition of the stock," it explained.
The department said that efforts to advance understanding of crab population dynamics are underway and that it would evaluate options for rebuilding, including the potential for sustainable fishing during periods of low abundance.
"I am struggling for words. This is so unbelievable that this is happening," Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, told The Associated Press.
In a statement posted to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Facebook, Goen said that these are "unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska's iconic crab fisheries and for the hard-working fishermen and communities that depend on them."
"For the second year in a row, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery is closed. Paired with that, the Bering Sea snow crab fishery is closed for the first time ever. 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," he said.
"The state’s decision to close the fishery is really leaving us with the options of bankruptcy or somehow miraculously finding a way to make this work," 32-year-old Gabriel Prout, who runs a business with his family in Kodiak, told KTUU.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists snow crabs as "significantly below target population level," and a "rebuilding plan is being developed for the Alaska snow crab stock."
They are also overfished, according to a 2021 stock assessment, but not subject to overfishing based on 2020 catch data.
Snow crab populations – an Arctic species – declined after a 2019 Bering Sea warming and last year's harvest of 5.6 million was the smallest in over 40 years.
Citing Alaska officials, CBS News reported that an estimated one billion crabs have disappeared in two years, with disease and changing environmental conditions and climate potential suspects.
While falling populations are a concern for conservationists, cancellations also greatly impact the industry, with The Seattle Times reporting that 2016 Bering Sea crab harvests grossed $280 million.
NOAA Fisheries' commercial fishing landings database found that commercial landings of Alaska snow crab totaled more than 36.6 million pounds and were valued at more than $101.7 million in 2020.
The closures came after days of discussions by officials and biologists who had to face the pleas of crabbers.
Alaska, within limits of a federal management plan, determines how many crabs are caught.
"We have extreme conservation concerns about the population. We have serious doubts about the model," Ben Daly an Alaska Department of Fish and Game research coordinator, told the Associated Press.
The red king crab harvest was canceled due to the low number of mature female crabs.
Fisheries that accidentally catch Bristol Bay king and snow crab will continue at this point without new restrictions.
The Bering Sea, Aleutian Island and the Gulf of Alaska produce approximately one-third or more of total U.S. crab catches and 10 species of crab are caught in Alaskan crab fisheries.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.