After years of population declines, Bering Sea king and snow crab seasons canceled

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For the first time ever, the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will not open for the upcoming season. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game announced the closure Monday afternoon. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will also be closed this year- for a second year in a row.

Gabriel Prout co-owns the F/V Silver Spray with his dad and brothers. The Silver Spray is a 116-foot steel crabber that’s homeported in Kodiak. 

He said he wasn’t surprised that Fish and Game closed the king crab fishery –  in a normal year, he’d go out for king crab, too. But numbers have been on the decline and that fishery didn’t open last year, either. 

The F/V Silver Spray, seen here, is homeported in Kodiak and typically heads west for king and snow crab seasons in the Bering Sea. (Photo: Gabriel Prout)

“The real shocking part is the total and complete collapse of the snow crab fishery which no one expected last year when it happened, and a complete closure this year was equally as shocking,” said Prout.

Miranda Westphal is an area management biologist with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. She said the sudden decline in snow crab came as a shock to biologists, too. 

Back in 2018, there was record recruitment in the Bering Sea snow crab stock. Those numbers started to go down in 2019, and there was no survey in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“And then in 2021 when they surveyed, we saw the largest decline we’ve ever seen in the snow crab population, which was very startling, I think, for everyone,” Westphal said. “It wasn’t something we expected, we were expecting to have this record recruitment come through the population.”

The quota was down about 90% from 2020; this year’s population numbers were even worse, according to Westphal, prompting the fishery’s closure.

Westphal says they’re not totally sure what caused the snow crab collapse, but they suspect warmer ocean conditions caused by climate change may be partly to blame. 

Sixty-or-so boats normally go out for Bering Sea snow crab, according to Westphal. 

Prout, the Kodiak fisherman, says a deckhand might make $50,000 to $80,000 in a good year. And the ex-vessel value for one boat is between $1.2 million to $1.5 million.

There is a small tanner crab fishery slated to open on Oct. 15 in the Bering Sea. Prout said that’s a band-aid, though.

“It really has been in the past a kind of a bonus when you have to fish that alongside the snow crab,” he said. “But seeing as there’s no snow crab this year with the closure, we’re contemplating whether or not we should even make the trip out west with the high fuel prices.”

He estimates that right now it costs about $100,000 in fuel roundtrip to make it to the Bering Sea fishing grounds. 

The price of steel – needed to maintain the Silver Spray’s more than 200 crab pots – has also jumped. He and his family are still waiting on fishery disaster payments to come through from the federal government for past poor seasons and closures. 

Prout says his family tenders in Prince William Sound during the summers – they’re already eyeing that season to make up some of the financial loss from the crab closure. But others won’t have many options.

“People are really going to have to make some hard calls here. Whether that’s selling out completely of their quota shares, selling their vessels, looking for other opportunities in other fishing sectors, which is few and far between. Fishermen are really going to be hurting the next year,” Prout said. 

Meanwhile Westphal says there could be more declines in the number of snow crabs over the next few years before the population starts to rebound. 

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