Alaska snow crabs are a cold-water species found off the coast of Alaska in the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi Seas. They are one of ten commercially-fished species in Alaskan waters. The perils of crab fishing in this region have been well documented for many years in the reality TV series Deadliest Catch.
Last year, officials in Alaska canceled the winter snow crab season for the first time ever due to a sharp population decline. While the number of juvenile snow crabs was at record highs just a few years earlier, approximately 90% of snow crabs mysteriously disappeared ahead of the 2021 season.
This year, officials in Alaska have once again canceled the snow crab harvest season for the second year in a row, citing the overwhelming numbers of crabs – in the billions – missing from Alaskan waters.
Scientists have suspected that the warming ocean temperatures triggered this snow crab population collapse. But did the crabs move someplace else or die off? According to a new study recently published by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, warmer ocean temperatures likely caused the snow crabs to starve to death. The research team found a significant link between recent marine heat waves in the eastern Bering Sea and the sudden disappearance of the snow crabs that began showing up in surveys in 2021.
According to the study, warmer ocean water dramatically increases snow crabs’ caloric needs. But with the warmer water also disrupting much of the region’s food web, snow crabs had a hard time foraging for food and weren’t able to keep up.
Researchers expect the population may eventually find refuge in colder waters further north.
Photo, posted August 28, 2013, courtesy of Boris Kasimov via Flickr.