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 Disappearing crabs

 Disappearing crabs


The US snow crab harvest has been cancelled after billions of them went missing from the waters around Alaska. The industry is normally worth $132 million a year. What caused them to vanish?

Billions of crabs… usually found scuttling around the seafloor near Alaska… have suddenly gone. Vanished.    

In fact, there are so few snow crabs left in the region that officials had to make an unprecedented decision…

“Following some big news out of Alaska where their King and snow crab seasons have been cancelled because of what biologists say is a population collapse” 


Snow crabs are eaten all over the world. They’re the red ones you might see on a seafood platter… And the US snow crab harvest is estimated to be worth $132 million a year. 

So cancelling the season will hit the crab-fishing industry hard, particularly in remote villages that rely on it… 

Gabriel Prout is a third-generation fisherman who works on a boat with his father and brothers. He told ABC news that the decision is going to have a “tremendous” impact…

“We have about 60 vessels that fish and the Bering Sea snow crab and king crab Fisheries each year so each and every one of those are going to have families affected children uh not to mention the the communities where they deliver the crab and the taxes they get from delivering it there the processors and and all the all the just crew members are going to be greatly affected from this collapse and closure of the snow crab that no one really knows for sure why happened…”

Gabriel Prout

So, where did the crabs go? And why?


Just a few years ago the number of juvenile snow crabs in the Bering Sea was at a record high. In 2018 there were around 8 billion crabs in the region. Last year… it was down to 1 billion.

“Where have the snow crab gone? did they run up north to get to that colder water did they completely cross across the border did they walk off the continental shelf on the edge there of the Bering Sea we don’t know.”

Gabriel Prout

Researchers are still trying to work out exactly what happened. But it seems likely that climate change is at least partly responsible for the mass population decline.

Ben Daley is a researcher with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Here he is, speaking to CBS News:

“Environmental conditions are changing rapidly we’ve seen some warm conditions in the Bering Sea the last handful of years and we’re seeing a response in a cold adapted species so it’s pretty obvious that that this is this is connected. ”

Ben Daley

Alaska is warming faster than any other state in the US and that includes the water surrounding it.  

Warmer seas speed up the  metabolism of crustaceans, meaning they need more food. 

So it’s possible that they cannibalised each other. The warmer water could also make the crabs more susceptible to disease.

Or… they’re still alive… and they’ve migrated to somewhere colder. Travelling into deeper water… or north towards Russia.

So what happens next for Alaska’s crab-fishers? And what about the snow crab?


In the short term, Gabriel Prout and his fellow crab-fishers are asking for financial support to help them through the cancelled season.

“We need a rapid relief financial program to get us through disasters like this much like farmers get during crop failures or communities get soon after a hurricane or flood… ”

Gabriel Prout

Already this year Alaska has received over $100 million in federal aid to help pay for other fishing disasters.     

Last year the red king crab season, which is different to the snow crab, was cancelled for the first time. It’s now been paused for a second year in a row.

Red king crabs are less sensitive to changes in temperature than snow crabs. So it seems likely that the population collapse in that case has been caused by overfishing.  

Which means Alaska is facing a crisis on multiple fronts. The long-term and continued ecological damage caused by aggressive commercial fishing… as well as the impact of global climate change

The hope is that – with so much money on the line – this recent disaster might spur action.

Because unless something drastic changes, the combination of climate change and overfishing has the potential to upend the local economy – and the environment – on a regular basis. 

This episode was written by Claudia Williams and produced by Rebecca Moore

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