Over the past few years, the snow crab population near Alaska has been dwindling. And researchers now think they know why.
On Thursday, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study saying that warmer ocean temperatures have likely led the snow crabs to starve to death, CNN reported. The disappearance of snow crabs began showing up in surveys in 2021, and now that trend has been linked to heat waves in the eastern Bering Sea.
“When I received the 2021 data from the survey for the first time, my mind was just blown,” Cody Szuwalski, the lead author of the study and a fishery biologist at NOAA, told CNN. “Everybody was just kind of hoping and praying that that was an error in the survey and that next year you would see more crabs … And then in 2022, it was more of a resignation that this is going to be a long road.”
In response to the population decline, Alaska has canceled its snow crab seasons to try to conserve the species. It did so for the first time ever in 2022, and it just announced this month that the season would not be allowed to happen once again.
Crabbers have in the past attributed the drop-off in numbers to overfishing. While that leads to conservation measures, such as the calling-off of the fishing seasons, it doesn’t explain why numbers are falling, experts told CNN.
“The big take home for me from the paper, and just the whole experience in general, is that historically, fishery scientists had been very worried about overfishing—this has been our white whale, and in a lot of places we really solved that with management,” Szuwalksi said. “But climate change is really throwing a wrench into our plans, our models, and our management systems.”
Snow crabs, which are used to living in cold waters, have not fared well with the rising temps. Hotter waters likely increased the amount of calories they need to survive, but they also affected species that the crabs eat to fulfill those requirements. As a result, the crabs have starved, and other species have moved into their habitat and eaten some of the snow crabs that were left behind.
Moving forward, Szuwalski said that he expects the crabs to move farther north in search of colder waters, meaning fewer and fewer crabs will be found in the eastern Bering Sea. Alaskan snow crab, then, may eventually become a delicacy of the past.