WA crabbers sit idle amid population busts

Washington’s North Pacific crabbers are sitting idle this year, because, for the first time ever, the U.S. snow crab season has been canceled.

The North Pacific snow and red king crab seasons are canceled this year, devastating small businesses and crabbers in Alaska and Washington state.

The Dungeness crab, the only crab native to Washington, is another crab out of several species in the Northeast Pacific that has experienced a dramatic population decrease during recent seasons.

“For the Dungeness crab fishery, the U.S. West Coast’s most valuable fishery, hypoxia has resulted in mass mortality of crabs in commercial pots,” according to a project funded by National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, a division of NOAA. “We are working in partnership with coastal tribes in northern California, Oregon, and Washington, the commercial Dungeness Crab fishery, and relevant Federal and State agencies to help them be ready to deal with future climate change, by increasing their understanding of how multiple stressors are likely to impact Dungeness crabs and the communities dependent on them.”

Many factors contributed to crab harvests being suspended this year, including dropping populations from overfishing and climate change.

Tim Novotny, head of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, spoke about how important the role of fishermen played in monitoring the health of these ecosystems.

“Keep in mind the role that the fishermen play in science, you know, they’re out there fishing and trying to bring food and bring that in safely to the table,” Novotny said. “But at the same time, a lot of these guys know the water just as well as a lot of the scientists do, and they see these changes.”

But crab businesses that have existed for generations now have no income, and the repercussions will affect entire communities that support the industry.

Jamie Goen is the Executive Director for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. She said, in 2018, there were a lot of small snow crabs in the ocean and things were looking really good.

“What they think happened is that those crabs required more calories, so they didn’t have enough out there to survive, given how many were out on the grounds and the population essentially collapsed,” Goen said.

She says there was increased disease in the crab population as well – due to the warming waters. It will take the current small snow crab 3 to 5 years to grow to a fishable size.

Goen says they are pushing Congress to speed up the fishery disaster process to save businesses, many of which have been in families for generations.

“We think the population and that our fisheries are closed in part due to climate change. That’s definitely playing a role. But there are many factors playing a role, including fishing impacts from other sectors that are continuing to impact the stocks even when our fisheries closed and we’re not fishing on them,” Goen said. “I think it’s going to take national policy change in the U.S. for how we do fisheries management, how we incorporate science, and how we adapt more rapidly to changes that are happening.”

KIRO Newsradio’s Chris Martin contributed to this report