Alaska Closes Snow Crab Season for First Time, Threatening Industry

snow crab
Snow crab (opilio) (Totti / CC BY SA 4.0)

Published Oct 16, 2022 5:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

For the first time, Alaska's Department of Fish and Game is canceling the wintertime snow crab season, citing a steep drop in the crab population. The closure of one of Alaska's best-known fisheries will have a significat impact on the fishing communities in Dutch Harbor, Southeast Alaska and Seattle, where many crab boats are homeported. It will also be noticed at seafood restaurants and fish counters across the U.S., as snow crab is a much-sought-after delicacy. 

The lucrative Bristol Bay king crab fishery is also closed over conservation concerns for the second year running.

"These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska's iconic crab fisheries and for the hard-working fishermen," said Jamie Goen, the head of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. "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."

The season is now limited to about two million pounds of Bairdi crab (tanner crab), a close relative that is nearly indistinguishable from and often interbreeds with snow crab. 

The collapse in snow crab population was precipitous. The estimated number on the seafloor has dropped from eight billion to one billion crabs in a matter of four years, and the reason is not known for certain. However, the drop-off coincides with warming waters, NOAA Kodiak lab director Michael Litzow told CNN. Snow crab likes water colder than about 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and with oceans warming and ice in retreat, their traditional habitat range is getting warmer than they usually prefer. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game continues to investigate. 

"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," the agency said. 

Crabbers have asked for support in the form of disaster assistance; the U.S. Department of Commerce has made disaster determinations for other Alaska fisheries in the past, including the Norton Sound, Yukon River, Chignik, Kuskokwim River and Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries.