Say goodbye to all-you-can-eat snow crabs in restaurants.
Growing up in the Midwest, I never really developed much of a taste for crab. (I did occasionally sample some fake “krab” on the sad attempts at Midwestern sushi, and thought that was normal for an embarrassingly long time.)
Maybe that’s a good thing, now, as it turns out that widespread consumption of crab, specifically snow crab, may be very quickly becoming a thing in the past. So long, unlimited crab legs at Red Lobster, we hardly knew ye.
The Arctic is warming. Hell, the world is warming. And that’s already impacting a lot of populations — especially marine ones.
On October 13th, 2022, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has, for the first time in state history, canceled the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea due to their falling numbers. An estimated billion snow crabs have vanished from the ocean — an estimated 90% drop in population.
Where did they go? What caused this decline to happen so suddenly? And is there any way we can fix it?
Let’s look at what we know.
Crab harvests have been declining for a while, now
This isn’t a one-time thing. Since 2018, there’s been an 83% decline in snow crab abundance in Alaska. The 2021 harvest limit, declared by state authorities, was 5.6 million pounds, which sounds like a lot — but that’s the smallest harvest in more than 40 years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) perform regular population checks on the known hatcheries of snow crabs and king crabs, looking at how many individuals they pull up with a specific trawl. From these samples, they’re able to estimate the stock of individuals that are present in the wild.
This year, for both types of crabs, the population levels were too low for the state to authorize a fishing season. In economic terms, that’s an estimated $280 million loss for fishing boats in the state.
A survey of snow crabs performed in 2021 showed an insane 99% drop in the number of immature female crabs that were found. There were also substantial drops in the number of mature crabs, but it’s the loss of immature crabs — the next generation — that is most concerning.
So where did they go?
Migration, disease, or warmer water — or a combination of the three
The short answer to what happened to the crabs: we don’t know for certain, but we have theories.
Theory 1: migration. Warming water temperatures could have pushed the crabs further north, seeking colder waters — but, despite the hopes of some fishermen, this theory isn’t likely.
Quite simply, migration wouldn’t explain a greater than 90% population drop. There would be a significant drop, but likely not to this extent.
Theory 2: disease. Warmer water temperatures could make it easier for a disease to spread — but again, we haven’t found diseased individuals, making it less likely that a disease is causing the population destruction.
Theory 3: warmer water. Warming water is not good for crabs, for a number of reasons:
- Many species of marine life use temperature as a signaling cue for things like migration, or even turning on certain bodily functions. Some fish that provide food for developing crabs may not show up at the crabs’ spawning ground, starving the crabs.
- Similarly, some predators only hunt in certain water temperature ranges. Cod, for example, don’t hunt in the “cold pool” at the bottom of the Bering Sea where young crabs prefer to hunt. Warmer water means that the cod can enter and eat the baby crabs.
- As the ocean grows warmer, it absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making the water more acidic. This reduces the amount of carbonate atoms in the water, which crabs need to build their shells. A more acidic ocean means it’s harder for crabs to grow.
Combine these factors together, and they likely add up to an extinction-level event for Alaskan crabs.
Much of this was likely driven as well by last year’s heat dome, which decimated marine populations up and down the western shore of America. An estimated billion sea creatures off the coast of Vancouver died from the heat wave, and it likely had further-reaching effects to the north and south that were not fully understood.
Keep in mind that, unlike humans, crabs are cold-blooded. They do not have any ability to regulate their internal temperature, other than by moving to a colder or warmer external environment. When the temperature of the ocean rises, crabs simply don’t have any method to cool themselves down.
Where do we go from here?
The Alaska government has shut down crab fishing operations for this year. Is that going to have an effect? Will it be enough?
Short answer: likely not. This is not an issue where the crabs are healthy and we just fished too many of them one year, and need to let the population grow back. Instead, this is the result of altering the environment to the point where it is no longer habitable for these species.
It’s more likely that surviving crabs are going to need to find a new habitat, one with adequate food, cold enough temperatures, and the protection from predators that the cold brings. The Bering Sea may no longer be that hospitable environment, which means no more crab fishing.
Snow crabs have long been the cheaper alternative to king crab, but that is likely to change as the bans on fishing reduce the availability of the meat. Snow crabs are only found in the Bering Sea near Alaska and near Nova Scotia. Now, the Nova Scotian snow crabs are going to be the only ones still appearing on menus.
Even if some snow crabs resume breeding in the Bering Sea, the population will need more time to grow back to sustainable levels. This isn’t a single wipeout — this has been a >50% drop each year, for multiple years.
More likely is that the government will open up crab fishing next year, but hauls will continue to decrease until the population is too meager to support the fishing operations.
In our world of capitalism, we mostly notice changes to rarity based on prices. When there is a shortage of some commodity, prices for it go up. The price of crab, snow crab in particular, is going to climb.
But that higher dollar amount likely undercuts the real tragedy of what is happening out in the environment. It’s not that the crabs are harder to harvest, or that there are fewer hunters gathering them. The population — literally, the number of these animals remaining in existence — is threatened to the point where they may go extinct in the Bering Sea.
This is the impact of wide-scale climate change. And while we can vote for stronger climate policies and push for greener energy and food sources, it’s too late to reverse the temperature climb in the next couple years, with what’s already been emitted into our changing atmosphere.
There are going to be more stories like this.
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