The first-ever cancellation of Alaska’s Bering Sea snow crab harvest due to population declines was a shock to the state’s fishing industry last fall, but in the decades to come, the ocean conditions that triggered the snow crab crash and harvest closure are expected to become common.
This is according to according to several scientists who gave presentations at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium that took place in late January.
Mike Litzow, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist based in Kodiak, Alaska said that the conditions that triggered the crash can be expected about once every seven years. By the 2040s, those conditions can be expected to occur one out of every three years, he said.
Litzow said that the cause of the snow crab disaster is something called “borealization,” which refers to a type of community reorganization where Arctic species are replaced by species with more boreal distributions in response to climatic warming.
“If we think about an Arctic animal at the southern edge of its range that’s exposed to really rapid warming, that leads us sort of inevitably to the concept of borealization,” Litzow, director of NOAA Fisheries Kodiak laboratory and shellfish assessment program, was quoted as saying by the Alaska Beacon news outlet. “As you warm Arctic ecosystems, those systems become prone to a state change, where Arctic taxa such as snow crab become replaced by subarctic taxa that are better able to tolerate ice-free and warm conditions.”
Snow crab, Litzow said, are dependent on the winter sea ice and the cold conditions created even after the seasonal melt, and while they are widely dispersed through the Bering Sea, it’s the southeastern Bering Sea where the crab are large enough to be commercially valuable.
But Litzow said that consecutive years of extreme warmth in the Bering Sea kept temperatures above the 2-degree Celsius threshold that is ideal for snow crab, plus made the area suitable for sea life from farther south, including groundfish that may prey on juvenile crab.
Though fishery managers are in the process of crafting a detailed plan to rebuild the stock to help harvesters, processors and communities in the short term, in the long term the suitable habitat for snow crab will be farther north, the Alaska Beacon quoted him as saying.
That points to a need to change management of snow crab and other fisheries, he said.
“We really need to start evaluating our risks less on our lived experience and more in terms of the trends going forward,” Litzow commented.
In Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi seas, suitable habitat for Arctic-specialized species like snow crab and fat-packed Arctic cod is shrinking, and lower-latitude species like Pacific cod and pollock are increasingly found at higher-latitude areas, as University of Alaska Fairbanks-led research has detailed.
In brighter news, I’d like to congratulate and welcome Michael White, who became the editor of Professional Mariner Magazine, one of Fishermen’s News’ sister publications, in mid-February.
Michael’s name may be slightly familiar to you if you’re a regular reader of this magazine because in his former role as a freelance writer, he authored a couple of articles for another Fish News’ sister magazine, Pacific Maritime, during the fourth quarter of 2022—one on shoreside powering of containerships and another on transition and transformation at Pacific Northwest ports.
I’ve gotten to know Michael a little over the past few months and am thrilled that has joined the Maritime Publishing family in a full-time position.
Prior to joining Maritime Publishing, he held a number of roles in the media and maritime industries, including being the communications manager for the San Fernando Bar Association, the Web editor and senior correspondent for Global Trade Magazine, and the publisher/editor of Pacific Coast Trade.
Michael, who resides in Los Angeles, also previously served as the North America marketing & communications manager for Mitsui OSK Lines America back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
His first day on the job with us was Feb. 13.
If you’re not familiar with Pro Mariner, you can see its content online and even get a free subscription by visiting professionalmariner.com.
Managing Editor Mark Nero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org