NOAA Ducks Responsibility in Alaska King Crab Collapse
Overfishing Driven by Inflated Population Estimates Doomed Red King Crab
Washington, DC — Despite overwhelming evidence from its own archives, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will not admit its responsibility for the abrupt demise of one of the nation’s largest commercial fisheries, according to its final rejection of a complaint filed more than two years ago by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Distressingly, in denying PEER’s demand to set the record straight, NOAA’s Chief Scientist tried to blame the collapse of the Bristol Bay red king crab on climate change without substantiation.
After all-time-record harvests, the Bristol Bay red king crab population collapsed in one of the more precipitous declines in the annals of U.S. fisheries management. This population has not rebounded and remains hovering on the brink of commercial extinction.
In April 2021, PEER filed a complaint on behalf of Dr. C. Braxton Dew, a fisheries biologist with more than 40 years of experience, 25 of which with NOAA Fisheries, charging that the agency paved the way for closing what was once Alaska’s most valuable single-species fishery by engaging in widespread sampling bias and systemic data falsification. The resulting inflated annual population estimates led to a multi-year regime of disastrous overfishing.
More than two years later, in May 2023, NOAA issued its final denial of PEER’s complaint seeking a correction of the record under the Information Quality Act in the form of a 21/2 page letter signed by NOAA Chief Scientist Cisco Werner. Today, PEER and Dr. Dew sent a letter to Administrator Richard Spinrad detailing how NOAA’s conduct in this matter fell well below the high standards he had set for the agency’s scientific integrity by –
- Utterly ignoring the uncontradicted evidence that NOAA inflated the population estimates, adding between 30 and 50 million phantom crabs;
- Refusing even to consider that these huge overestimates fueled ruinous overfishing. In fact, NOAA has never declared the red king crab overfished; and
- Positing a causal link between climate change and the sudden loss of tens of millions of adult Bristol Bay king crabs, although no scientific literature has even hypothesized, let alone confirmed, this nexus.
“After a more than two-year paper chase, it appears that today’s NOAA lacks the scientific integrity to admit even its most glaring mistakes,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting NOAA’s historic institutional aversion against addressing overfishing. “NOAA’s utter disinterest in finding the cause for the red king crab collapse risks this history repeating itself.”