All You Can Eat Snow Crabs Ocean City Md – The climate crisis is thought to be the main reason for the mass die-off of Alaskan snow crabs. Photo: Noaa Fisheries/AFP/Getty Images
Authorities close snow crab season for the first time as the number of valuable seafood accidents from 11bn to 2bn in four years
All You Can Eat Snow Crabs Ocean City Md
Just off the coast of Alaska, the Eastern Bering Sea is home to snow crabs, their spiny legs scuttling across a nearly frozen expanse of ocean. Those legs, prized by seafood lovers, underpin the state’s $160m (£143m) annual crabbing industry.
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But this year, federal fisheries managers have closed the Alaskan snow crab season for the first time, due to the population decline of more than 80% since 2018.
Beyond the unknown ecosystem effects of this loss, the closure has scared the fishermen who depend on this industry, who will lose millions. However, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which imposed the limits, says the snow crab population is so bad it leaves them with no choice.
What can explain the decline? With so much at stake, scientists are investigating the possible reasons behind the crab’s decline.
The first thing to understand is that it wasn’t a sudden decline, says Erin Fedewa, a fisheries research biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa). “The snow crab story has to start back in 2018,” she says. That year, an unusually high number of snow crab populations coincided with one of the warmest years, and lowest sea ice extents, on record in the Bering Sea.
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This event – caused by a north-east Pacific marine heat wave – was an anomaly linked to the climate crisis, and involved die-offs in several species including seals and seabirds.
In 2019 (another year with record high temperatures), Noaa’s annual trawl survey in the eastern Bering Sea – designed to give fishery managers and fishermen an indication of the health of crab stocks – showed sharp declines in the number of young crabs.
The warmer seas are thought to have presented a particular challenge to these young children, as they mature in cold water pools on the ocean floor that are fed by melting sea ice. Accelerated melting, together with warmer waters, likely reduced the available habitat by pushing this cooled nursery above the 2C maximum required by the juveniles.
But by 2021, the survey showed that crabs of all ages, not just juveniles, had declined, Fedewa says. “I remember being out on the boat and knowing something was wrong, because at stations where we normally sample thousands of snow crabs, we were catching maybe a few hundred.” The situation continued until 2022, when the survey showed that the snow crab population dropped from an estimated 11.7 billion in 2018, to 1.9 billion.
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A reduction in the number of crabs means a missing food source for predators “that has to be picked up somewhere else in the ecosystem”, says Darrell Mullowney, a research scientist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans who studies snow crabs in Canadian waters. . eastern Canada.
The picture that Noaa scientists and others paint is of a rapidly shrinking cold-water habitat on the eastern Bering Sea floor, which has restricted snow crabs and forced more animals into smaller domain with fewer resources. That’s a recipe for starvation—especially as warmer water increases a crab’s metabolism, Fedewa says.
A related theory is that as snow crabs’ cold water territory decreased, they were left exposed to predators.
Previously, the frigid waters favored by snow crabs created what Fedewa calls a “sanctuary” – a reliable buffer against species less adapted to the cold, such as Pacific cod, which prey on crabs. But, she says, “one assumption as the Bering Sea continues to warm, is that suddenly cod come to these cold lands that are no longer cold, and they have access to snow crabs”. And yet it cannot be a “smoking gun”, says Fedewa, because the cod is unable to eat the larger adult crabs, which does not explain the decline in the general population.
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Another theory is that these cramped conditions may hasten the spread of diseases such as bitter crab syndrome, caused by a parasite. These are all active lines of inquiry for Noaa researchers, says Fedewa.
What all these potential drivers have in common, however, is warming oceans. “All these mechanisms are explained by the dramatic temperature changes we saw in 2018 and 2019,” says Fedewa.
According to an annual survey of the Bering Sea floor, estimates of their total number have fallen to around 1.9 billion in 2022, down from 11.7 billion in 2018. Photo: Noaa Fisheries/AFP/Getty Images
Porters have expressed concern, particularly about commercial demersal trawlers whose nets are indiscriminately raking the ocean floor. Where high-value commercial species such as cod are pushing north into warmer seas – combined with shrinking sea ice making previously inaccessible lands more accessible – there are concerns that a trawler is following them, and securing a crab as a by-catch. In addition to scooping them up in nets, trawlers may be damaging crabs in ways that affect survival down the line, known as “undetected mortality”, says Fedewa.
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“In any fishery there is always some form of bycatch. In the spring when the crab is moulting, they may be very vulnerable to interactions with gear.”
When we dig deeper into the vessel logs, a striking pattern emerges: scores of ships trawling for hundreds of hours across the Northern reaches of the Eastern Bering Sea floor during critical hatching months in areas where snow crabs might shelter under ice once. pic.twitter.com/uVPfhzn6qD — spencer 🦀 (@Unpop_Science) October 16, 2022
More research is needed to understand the contribution of fishing to the overall decline of trees. Fedewa says agencies such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) are taking this seriously, and calls for more research into the impact of trawl gear on crab mortality. “Everybody acknowledges that [the impact of fisheries] is a real possibility. It just needs to be studied further,” she says.
Mullowney expresses concern about overfishing, but his research into the impact of trawlers on Canadian snow crab populations has shown that any impact is often overshadowed by the climate crisis. The broad geographic scope of the declines in the eastern Bering Sea, and the fact that the entire population was affected, suggests that a more fundamental driver – such as temperature change – is at work, he says.
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Since the announcement of the closure of the crab fishery, the NPFMC has launched plans for a stock rebuilding assessment. Fishermen also hope to receive federal financial support for the loss of the season.
Meanwhile, Fedewa currently has several snow crabs in her lab, where she will be exploring the effects of disease, and the effect of temperature on their metabolism, among other factors. It can’t replicate the complexity of the Bering Sea ecosystem, but hopefully it will bring her closer to an answer to what’s behind the crab’s decline – which she believes has more than one cause.
“If the Bering Sea has taught us anything, it’s the whole ecosystem. There is rarely one process that is the sole driver.”
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