The Mysterious Disappearance of Alaska’s Snow Crabs

by Brian Neeley.

Theories are many. Crabs went to Russian waters. They are dead because poachers captured them. They are dead because they have eaten each other. The crabs crisscrossed the continental shelf and scientists didn’t see them. Alien abduction.

Well, not the last. But everyone agrees on one point: the disappearance of Alaska’s snow crabs is probably linked to climate change. Marine biologists and people in the fishing industry fear the fast and unexpected crash of this luxury seafood item is a harbinger, a reminder of how quickly fisheries can be wiped out in this new, volatile world.

Gabriel Prout and his brothers Sterling and Ashlan were blinded. Harvests of Alaskan King Crab – The large, scaly species that was the star of the television show “Deadliest Catch” – have been on a slow decline for more than a decade. But in 2018 and 2019, scientists had great news about Alaska’s snow crabs: Record numbers of juvenile crabs were zooming around the ocean floor, suggesting a massive race for the subsequent fishing season.

Prout, 32, and his brothers bought out their father’s partner, who became part owners of the 116-foot Silver Spray. He took out a loan and bought $4 million in rights to harvest a large number of crabs. This was a year when many young commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea bought into the fishery, passing from deckhand to the owners. Everyone was sure that the 2021 Snow Crab season was going to be huge.

And then they weren’t there.

Scientists found snow crab stocks were down 90 percent, despite previously optimistic signs. The season opened and the total allowable harvest decreased from $45 million to $5.5 million. Commercial fishermen could not even catch that quantity.

In October 2021, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the king crab season entirely for harvesting for the first time since the 1990s.