Alaska Snow Crab Season Canceled as Officials Investigate the Missing of an Estimated 1 Billion Crabs

In a major blow to the US seafood industry, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has, for the first time in the state’s history, canceled the winter ice crab season in the Bering Sea due to their declining numbers. While restaurant menus will suffer, scientists worry about what the sudden population decline means for the health of the Arctic ecosystem.

State officials said one billion crabs have mysteriously disappeared in two years. This shows a 90% decline in their population.

Snow crab season begins in Japan
Freshly caught ice crabs sit in containers on a fishing boat at Mikuni Fishing Port in Mikuni, Fukui Prefecture, Japan, Friday, November 6, 2015.

Buddhika Wirasinghe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Did they run north to get that cold water?” Gabriel Prout, whose Kodiak Island fishing business relies heavily on snow crab populations. “Did they completely cross the boundary? Did they shore up the continental shelf above the Bering Sea?”

Ben Daly, a researcher at ADF&G, is investigating where the crabs have gone. He oversees the health of the state’s fisheries, which produce 60% of the country’s seafood.

“Illness is a possibility,” Daly told CBS News.

He also pointed to climate change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Alaska is the fastest-warming state in the country, and is losing billions of tons of ice each year—critical for crabs that need cold water to survive.

“The environmental situation is changing rapidly,” Daly said. “We’ve seen warmer conditions in the Bering Sea over the years, and we’re seeing a response in cold adapted species, so it’s pretty clear that it’s linked. It’s a canary in a coal mine for other species that Cold water is needed.”

Prout said there is a need for a relief program for fishermen, similar to programs for farmers who experience crop failure, or for communities affected by storms or floods.

Asked what fishermen can do in this situation with their livelihood dependent on the sea, Prout replied, “Hope and pray. I think that’s the best way to say it.”

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