Alaskan Crab Fishermen Slam Decision to Cancel $200 Million Crab Season

by Suzanne Halliburton
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Alaskan crab fishermen are in a bind. The Bering Sea season was supposed to start Saturday. Instead, the state canceled those plans.

The snow crab population is too low to fish. So the Alaskan fishermen must sit the season out and hope that the crabs can breed enough to repopulate. That’s no guarantee.

“I am struggling for words,” Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, told The Associated Press. “This is so unbelievable that this is happening.”

Gabriel Prout, who runs his family’s business in Kodiak, told an Anchorage TV station that he’s left with few options. “The state’s decision to close the fishery is really leaving us with the options of bankruptcy or somehow miraculously finding a way to make this work,” Prout said in an interview with KTUU.

Alaska’s crab fishing industry is worth more than $200 million. That’s according to a report by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The state provides the world seafood markets with about six percent of the king, snow, tanner and Dungeness crabs.

Closing of Alaskan Crab Fishing Will Impact 65 Boats in Bering Sea

The closing of the Alaskan crab season probably will impact as many as 65 boats that fish the Bering Sea.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that snow crabs are “significantly below target population level.” It’s unclear why the species is slumping so badly. The Bering Sea is warming. And the snow crab population started dropping after the temps started increasing. Alaskan fishermen caught 5.6 million snow crabs last season. That represented the smallest harvest in four decades.

NOAA has tracked mature male snow crabs in the Bering Sea for the past 10 years. The numbers of young male crabs jumped in 2018 and 2019. But then they plummeted. Miranda Westphal, a biologist with Alaska’s fish and game department, said on Friday that from 2018-2021 “we lost about 90 percent of these animals.”

Westphal said that the Bering Sea got “extremely warm and the snow crab population kind of huddled together in the coolest water they could find.” So Westphal believes the crabs couldn’t find enough food and starved to death. There’s no way of knowing for sure, Westphal said. Maybe disease also played a factor.

“We don’t know and we are never going to actually know because the crabs are gone,” she said.

It’s all why Goen was so upset about what a closed season will do to the Alaskan crabbers he represents.

“These are truly unprecedented and troubling times for Alaska’s iconic crab fisheries,” Goen said. His agency represents about 70 percent of the state’s crab fishermen.

“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.”