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Did Climate Change Really Kill Billions of Snow Crabs in Alaska?

The disappearance of billions snow crabs from the Bering Sea has captivated the world’s attention since Alaska shut down the fishery for the first time in October 2022. But where exactly did these snow crabs go? And what caused them to vanish so quickly?

Scientists are still grappling with these questions, but climate change is the most cited hypothesis for the species’ retreat. Erin Fedewa, a research fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the decline of the species, Chionoecetes opilio, coincided with a marine heat wave that swept through the Bering Sea between 2018 and 2019, which possibly caused the species to experience starvation, increased disease or predation.

Some fishers and crab experts put forward a different idea: They’ve suggested that fishing, particularly the unintentional capture of crabs in fishing gear known as trawls, also contributed to the loss of the snow crab, or at the very least, impeded the species’ recovery from low population levels.

The snow crab fishery’s closure has amplified a chorus of concerns around Alaska’s trawling industry — mainly from within the fishery sector itself — and the knowledge gaps around its potential impact on fisheries.

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