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Snow crabs in the Bering Sea have been hard to find — partially due to climate change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Crabbing in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska is grueling and dangerous - 20-hour shifts, rough seas, jackhammering tons of ice off the boat. But now the industry has another challenge - a huge population drop in historically lucrative snow crab. Scientists think that one significant driver is likely climate change. Hal Bernton of The Seattle Times has covered the fishing industry for decades. He went out on a crab boat in the Bering Sea this winter to observe how these changes are affecting crabbers. He joins us now to share his reporting. Thanks for being here.

HAL BERNTON: Hello.

RASCOE: The snow crab population in the Bering Sea has been dropping. How long has this decline been happening and, like, by how much has it declined?

BERNTON: Well, it was actually quite abrupt. There was an intense period of warming in the Bering Sea in the winters, where the ice was in a great deal of retreat. In the summer, the temperatures rose very high in 2018 and 2019. Last summer, the federal scientists did their annual surveys, and they were just stunned by what they found because more than 99% of the young females, the juveniles that they had found just two years earlier, weren't there. And overall, population of all sizes and ages of crab were down, and the harvest was cut by nearly 90% for this year to just 5.6 million pounds.

RASCOE: And so the scientists that you spoke to for this story are still trying to understand exactly what happened. But there's evidence that this is happening, at least in part, due to warm waters and, as you talked about, the lack of sea ice. Why would that affect the snow crab population?

BERNTON: Well, it's really interesting what happens. The Bering Sea winter ice, as it forms and as it melts, helps to create this very cold pool along the sea bottom. And the snow crab - they do fine in this very cold water. But a lot of things that like to eat them, like Pacific cod, don't like that water so much. And so it offers them a kind of refuge. And when the cold pool largely disappeared in 2018 and then 2019, scientists believe that the cod and other predators were able to eat up a lot more snow crab.

Some of the other issues that were raised were possible increase in disease among the crab when the temperatures were so warm. Some crab may have moved, although they don't think that accounts for all of it. But it is for sure true that the best crabbing now lies much further to the north. This winter was not particularly warm. It was also a hopeful sign to the fishermen that there might be at least a short-term rebound in the snow crab that their livelihoods have depended on.

RASCOE: How is it affecting the bottom line? Like, for the crew that you went out with, how is their business being affected?

BERNTON: Well, last year was a relatively good year. There was a relatively strong harvest. Prices were high, and they made good money. This year, of course, it's a much different story, and part of how they'll fare financially depends on what will happen with the final settlements over the price of crab.

But I must say, it's kind of a more existential thing for these guys. This has been their lives for many years, at least the boat that I went out on, and they're really wondering, what is the future? Will the crab come back, or will, eventually, the retreat of the sea ice in the decades ahead, or even in the years ahead, strike such a blow that the crab won't come back in the way that they would hope?

RASCOE: Shellfish biologists told you they expect it would take, like, a string of good ice years for snow crabs to rebound. Do we think that we will have enough good ice years for snow crabs to rebound?

BERNTON: Well, I think that the next few years, there's a lot of uncertainty about both what will happen with the winters - maybe we'll have a string of good ice years - and what will happen with the crab. Unfortunately, the forecasts for mid-century, where climate change footprint becomes stronger, are not as promising for the snow crab because the best forecasts are that the winter ice will be greatly diminished by the mid-century. Maybe over the short term, we can have another bounce back of the snow crab. And that's certainly what they're hoping for.

RASCOE: That's Hal Bernton, reporter with The Seattle Times. His reporting on the Bering Sea snow crabs was done in partnership with the Anchorage Daily News and the Pulitzer Center. Thanks, Hal.

BERNTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.