For the first time in history, Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game has canceled the state’s winter snow crab season due to a shocking plummet in the crustacean’s numbers.
Between 2019 and 2021, researchers “saw the largest decline we’ve ever seen in the snow crab population, which was very startling,” department biologist Miranda Westphal told Alaska Public Media in the wake of Monday’s cancellation.
The department made the decision based on data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which conducts an annual survey of the population in the eastern Bering Sea. In just two years, the animals’ numbers in the area dropped by about 90% — amounting to an estimated 1 billion crabs, CBS News reported.
Scientists are investigating what caused the crabs to vanish. Climate change is a likely culprit.
“Snow crabs are an Arctic species,” Westphal told The New York Times on Friday, adding that in previous years of warming water in the Bering Sea, “the snow crab population kind of huddled together in the coolest water they could find.”
In higher temperatures, the crabs have a metabolic need for more oxygen, according to Gizmodo. But warmer water also holds less oxygen, leading to a perilous situation for animals adapted to colder environments. Warmer temperatures have also been known to drive disease among marine life.
Fish and Game Department researcher Ben Daly told CBS that the crabs are “a canary in a coal mine for other species that need cold water.”
This week’s news is not only a severe warning sign about the Arctic ecosystem, but a major economic blow. Alaska has also canceled its king crab fishing season for the second consecutive year due to low population numbers.
Gabriel Prout, who owns a fishing business with his family, told Alaska Public Media that those who depend on the crabbing industry are “going to have to make some hard calls” about what to do next.
“Fishermen are really going to be hurting the next year,” he said.