A mysterious decline in the crab population of Alaska is impacting the fishing season and, consequently, local fishing communities. According to a 2020 study on snow crabs, recent increases in temperatures and a reduced, more northerly cold pool extent has resulted in a smaller area occupied by the snow crabs. The snow crab distribution is heavily constrained by the availability of cold water habitat, which is significantly reliant on the changing climactic conditions. Aside from the king and snow crabs, Alaska's diverse marine ecosystems are home to the Pacific halibut, beluga and humpback whales, puffins, porpoises, and polar bears, among many other species rapidly feeling the effects of global warming at an alarming scale.
The decline in the snow crab population — an estimated drop from 11 billion to two billion in four years — has led to the subsequent cancellation of the fishing season in Alaska, a historic first. Unfortunately, the impact of the snow crabs' disappearance extends beyond the species, negatively affecting the people who rely on them for their livelihood. This is affecting the microeconomics of the region. The core principles of microeconomics are demand, supply, and equilibrium, and these collectively influence the market price of a product. In Alaska this has led to an increase in the price of snow crabs this year. Some stores are already reporting that the price of snow crabs has gone from $29 to $60 a pound due to the scarcity. Labor economics is also adrift as fisheries strive to manage production costs, including the high insurance, mortgage, and maintenance fees involved in running boats.
Fishing is an inherently risky occupation. It is considered the most dangerous job in the US, with fishermen at constant risk of injuries, deadly wildlife encounters, and death. A recent study by the FISH Safety Foundation found more than 100,000 fishing-related deaths occur yearly, three to four times higher than the previous estimates. As the global demand for seafood increases, fishing is poised to become more and more dangerous.
With the forced cancellation of the fishing season due to the decline in the crab population, fewer boats will go to sea. This means locals may turn to other industries to make a living. While that may decrease the number of fishing fatalities and injuries, it may also lead them to work that is just as physically demanding, if not as dangerous, such as logging — the second most dangerous job in the country.
Another potential issue would concern properly enforcing the fishing season's cancellation. Fish and game wardens, who are patrol authorities assigned to prevent fish and game law violations, are not a popular choice of occupation in Alaska, with a mere 2.9% projected increase in employment from 2020 to 2030. Given the low number of fish and game wardens in the state, ensuring that no fishermen attempt to catch snow crabs and maintaining conservation laws this season will be challenging.
Currently, Alaska's Department of Labor and Workforce Development has programs and initiatives that grant funding for employee training and education, as well as on-the-job training and employment support. Mariners are also hoping to receive federal financial aid, similar to the $132 million received by the state during the salmon, red king crab, and tanner crab fishery disasters earlier this year.
This canceled fishing season may be a timely wake-up call for the government to reconsider fishing industry regulations. At the same time, it may contribute to reducing the rate of fishermen deaths and injuries on the job, both of which happen too often. Along with an added urgency for the conservation of Alaska's marine life, it's as much a call for better laws and protocols for mariners. Even as an inherently dangerous job, the loss of life is never excusable.
Written by Camila Logan for marinerlaw.com
The Jones Act and general maritime law mandate certain safety standards for the brave men and women who serve aboard commercial fishing vessels in Alaska and beyond. If you or a loved one suffered a fishing vessel injury or wrongful death, you may be entitled to legal compensation. Mariner Law, PLLC represents injured commercial fishermen and their surviving family members after an incident at sea. Call today to schedule a free consultation with an admiralty lawyer: (253) 600-2531.