Gabriel Prout and his brothers Sterling and Ashlan were caught off guard. Alaskan king crab harvests – the biggest and steepest species that was the star of the TV show “Deadliest Catch” – have been slowly declining for more than a decade. But in 2018 and 2019, scientists apparently had good news about Alaskan snow crabs: record numbers of juvenile crabs were spinning around the ocean floor, suggesting massive transport for subsequent fishing seasons.
Prout, 32, and his brothers bought out their father’s partner, becoming co-owners of the 116ft Silver Spray. They took out loans and bought $4 million in rights to fish a lot of crabs. For a year, many young commercial fishermen in the Bering Sea entered the fishery, growing from deckhands to owners. Everyone was convinced that the 2021 snow crab season was going to be huge.
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And then they weren’t there.
Scientists, despite earlier optimistic signs, found that snow crab stocks had declined by 90%. The season has opened and the total allowable harvest has increased from 45 million pounds to 5.5 million pounds. Commercial fishermen couldn’t catch even that much.
In October 2021, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the king crab season entirely to harvest, for the first time since the 1990s.
“It was a struggle,” Prout said. “We were approaching empty jars. We would be searching several kilometers of seabed without even bringing up 100 crabs. We were grinding and barely caught what we were allowed to catch.
King crabs are massive, up to 20 pounds each, with thick, spiny shells that diners need tools to break open. Snow crabs weigh between 2 and 4 pounds and have thinner shells that can be broken open with your hands. Snow crabs are the biggest crab industry in Alaska, and while they’re still a splurge (in a normal year around $25 a pound), they tend to be much cheaper than kings. Both have a sweet, brackish white meat that comes off in long chunks.
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Head to Joe’s Stone Crab in DC for an order of these soft, luxurious crab legs and you’re likely to have heart palpitations: $199.95 for 1½ pounds of king crab. The king crab is served fresh with melted butter and is cracked at the table. But still, this price is surprising.
For restaurateurs looking for new sources to fill Alaska’s deficit, there’s an additional headache: The U.S. government in March banned imports of Russian fish and seafood, along with other consumer items such as vodka and diamonds, as part of its growing sanctions against Russia. on his invasion of Ukraine.
At Klaw, a hot new restaurant in Miami, managing partner George Atterbury worked with Troika Seafood, a Norwegian seafood wholesaler, to bring in live red king crab from Finnmark, the northernmost county. from Norway. They are flown overnight via Norse Atlantic Airways to Fort Lauderdale. Each of the prehistoric-looking animals, which can have a leg span of five feet, is tracked with a QR code.
“We house live king crab in a separate facility from our restaurant in 2,000 gallon tanks,” Atterbury said. “Costs fluctuate aggressively, but we understand that we can only pass a small percentage on to the customer as we are price sensitive on what is reasonable.”
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The collapse of two of Alaska’s three major crab stocks — there’s a third, bairdi crab, also called tanner crab, which is doing well but is a much smaller industry — is more than a gastronomic inconvenience for the one percent. It is the primary source of income for many of the 65 communities that make up the Western Alaska Community Development Quota Program, which allocates a portion of the annual fish harvest of certain commercial species directly to coalitions villages that, due to geographic isolation and diminished access to sources of income, have had limited economic opportunities, says Heather McCarty, fisheries consultant in Juneau.
The program was created to provide economic and social benefits to residents of Western Alaska, alleviating poverty in what are often Native communities.
“I work in the Pribilof Islands for an Aleut community of 450 people, which is heavily invested in crab quota,” McCarty said. On St. Paul’s Island, Trident Seafoods has one of the largest crab processing plants in the world, employing up to 400 workers during the peak snow crab season in February. This month of February, it was calm.
“The entire community of Saint-Paul is managed by the fish tax. It’s 85 percent of the community’s income,” she said. “They had [financial] reservations last year, but it’s not going to go well in the future. The king crab has been in decline for some time, but the snow crab has done quite well and taken a dive that no one expected.
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She says what happened with snow crab is an example of the kind of rapid changes in resource availability that climate change is making commonplace under the sea. In some cases, the abrupt changes are apparent when the species flower. “There has been a record sockeye return to Bristol Bay,” she said. “It seems that these rapid changes can have extreme consequences.”
But what happened to those snow crabs?
“We don’t have data to say specifically what happened,” said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Bob Foy, science and research director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “What we do know is that we had an extreme heat wave in 2019 and many fish and crab stocks moved to areas where they hadn’t been before. Fishing shifted its effort to the northwest.
But movement alone does not explain it. Crabs are a benthic species, meaning they crawl along the ocean floor and are not able to migrate as quickly as many finfish.
“Crab biomass up there on St. Lawrence Island [northwest of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea] hasn’t changed much. What this suggests is that there was a significant mortality event or they moved into deeper waters beyond our survey or onto the Russian shelf,” Foy said, but he seems skeptical about the latter possibility. “The magnitude of the biomass could not have moved without us detecting it. We believe we had a very large mortality event, which indicates an extreme event that we have never seen before in the Bering Sea.
He said crabs, perhaps due to heightened sensitivity to their ecosystem, are like the canary in a coal mine – for the climate and those who live off the crab fishery.
Crabeaters are waiting to hear if the state’s $200 million snow crab industry will be severely curtailed for the 2022-23 season, and on Oct. 15 they find out if the king crab season is shut down entirely for a second year.
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Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers trade association, said the crab meltdown affected blue-collar workers and small family businesses the most. For commercial fishers, nothing comparable to farmers’ “crop insurance” is available, and although the U.S. Department of Commerce pays nearly $132 million to Alaska for fishing disasters, it will take years for the money to reach those affected, Goen said. And while reports of crab deaths are greatly exaggerated and the crustaceans have instead migrated permanently north to colder waters, fishing further north in the Bering Sea is too dangerous for owner-operator vessels. Alaska, in part because there are no coast guards there to respond to medical emergencies or boat problems.
The Prout family branched out into “offering” cod and herring, essentially acting as couriers to transport the caught fish to canneries so that commercial fishermen could continue fishing. They’re hauling other people’s catch to work on that $4 million loan.
“To recoup a 90% loss, there aren’t many options,” Gabriel Prout said by satellite phone aboard the Silver Spray., en route from Cordova to Kodiak to tend cod. “It’s a dark time for the industry. Many people will sell their vessels or sell their quota to make ends meet. Dad handles this remarkably well, but he’s still an optimistic person.