For the first time ever, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game blocked this season’s snow crab harvest from going forward because local crab levels are too low, according to a press release

Creating a seasonal break from traps and trawling vessels may help populations rebound to healthier levels, but it’s unclear if the worsening impacts of climate change will forever alter the industry, scaling it down until it’s more folklore than economic anchor for local communities. 

Scientists and regulators will be monitoring the situation in the months ahead as they weigh the competing interests of conservation and livelihoods and figure out what next season will look like.

“Understanding crab fishery closures have substantial impacts on harvesters, 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,” the press release said. “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.”

Whatever they decide will reverberate worldwide as the climate and biodiversity crisis undermines various industries and communities dependent on wildlife, including farming, fishing, tourism, and much more. 

3 Key Things You Should Know About the Disappearing Alaskan Snow Crab

  • Warming ocean temperatures diminished the snow crab’s habitat, but overfishing exacerbated the problem.   

  •  90% of marine creatures could go extinct by the end of this century if temperatures continue to rise at the current pace.  

  • Countries have the opportunity to regenerate marine ecosystems by phasing out fossil fuels and developing enacting fishing policies.

What happened to the snow crabs?

In 1980, population surveys estimated nearly 4 billion snow crabs in the seas off the coast of Alaska. In 2021, the number dropped to roughly 250 million.

The leading narrative attributes this decline to climate change. Few parts of the world have warmed as rapidly as Alaska, clocking a temperature rise of 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1925. Since the ocean absorbs the majority of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gasses, this means that waters around Alaska have warmed even more.  

Snow crabs depend on the formation of snow ice in the Bering Sea to create an extremely cold band of water on the ocean floor. It’s in this icy layer that young crabs are able to grow without the threat of predators. But in recent years, snow ice has retreated, and this cold sanctuary has shrunk, leaving crabs more exposed

This would mean that rapidly reducing greenhouse gasses to stabilize global temperatures would give the crabs the best chance of survival, especially because animals can move to safer areas and adapt if given enough time

But an illuminating Twitter thread by the science writer Spencer Roberts shows that there’s more to the story than climate change and that it wasn’t just natural predators that took advantage of the exposed snow crabs.

Fishing vessels seized the opportunity to explore previously inaccessible waters to catch crabs in their breeding grounds. With satellite imagery and fishing records, Roberts shows that fishing vessels heavily trawled exposed crab positions when they were at their most vulnerable. It’s this overfishing, Roberts argues, enabled by weak regulatory policies, that really pushed the crabs to catastrophic lows. 

“Evidence suggests melting sea ice created an opportunity for fishing vessels to wipe out crabs in habitat that was previously inaccessible in winter,” Roberts sums up. 

What’s the bigger picture?

Our current era of climate change is not a natural phenomenon. It’s driven by a global economy that prioritizes financial profit over the well-being of communities and the environment, in which clearly harmful activities are allowed to continue if they make money. 

The fishing industry is a perfect microcosm of the cumulative harm that this system causes. 

For decades, fishing vessels have pushed their catch loads to higher and higher volumes with equipment, such as massive trawling nets, that scrape entire ecosystems worth of animals from their habitats, dragging and killing countless unintended bycatch species in the process. At the same time, industrial fishing vessels have spewed enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and heavily polluted waters with chemical waste and old gear that goes onto trap and kill other animals

The sustainable forms of subsistence fishing that prevailed in the past have all but vanished as notions of the “honorable harvest,” in which you only take what you need and respect ecological limits, get pushed aside by a winner-takes-all, zero sum economic ethos that runs roughshod over environments in pursuit of profit. 

Over the past few decades, fish populations worldwide have been pushed to perilous lows, hunted to near extinction. In addition to the relentless threat of industrial fishing, climate change has rendered many habitats inhospitable. Coral reefs, abundant safe havens for ecological flourishing, have been scorched by marine heat waves, often turning to lifeless fossils. 

Alaskan snow crabs are just one example of the toll this multifaceted assault can take on a species. Their future survival depends on an overhaul of marine and economic policies worldwide. 

What’s to be done?

Protecting both marine species and sustainable livelihood fishing requires several interventions. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game took the right step in pausing the fishing season to allow snow crabs to temporarily recover. Other governments worldwide observing similar declines should take the same step. 

But any pause has to be paired with economic support for the affected fishers. In the case of Alaskan crab fishers, requests for financial assistance need to be met so that they can get through the months ahead without hardship. Going forward, they need financial assistance to transition to other forms of fishing or other industries entirely if snow crabs never rebound to a stable enough level to resume historic fishing quotas. 

When and if the snow crabs do recover, new fishing policies have to be enacted to ensure that their breeding grounds are safeguarded and population levels are constantly monitored to prevent overfishing. Once these policies are adopted, aggressive enforcement against bad actors needs to become the norm to prevent the sorts of black market operations that flourish today. 

Countries then have to cooperate on a global scale to ensure waters outside of domestic fishing zones are also properly protected and conservation areas are expanded.

More broadly, the environmental crisis engulfing the planet has to be addressed if crabs are to be caught in the future. If temperatures keep rising along the current trajectory, then up to 90% of marine species will go extinct by the end of the century.  

This means that fossil fuel use needs to halve by the end of the decade and then exponentially decline until emissions are zeroed out. The fishing industry can play a part in this by investing in more efficient vehicles, adopting less hazardous fuels, improving port and docking policies, and limiting time on the water overall.

Snow crabs are a hallmark species and fishing is a fundamental vocation. Only a just transition away from fossil fuels and toward regenerative economics can keep them both intact for future generations.

Global Citizen Explains

Defend the Planet

Billions of Snow Crabs Have Disappeared From Alaska's Waters. Here's Why You Should Care.

By Joe McCarthy