New arrivals in Seward could spell hope for crab fisheries

By Margaret Bauman  in the Alaska Journal of Commerce
Biologist Sara Persselin pulls back the shell of a king crab to display where it carries its eggs at the Alaska Fisheries Research Center on Near Island, near Kodiak, in 2006. The crab at the center were used to begin the effort of starting a hatchery that aims to restore wild populations of red and blue king crab. ARCHIVE PHOTO/Melissa Campbell/

AJOCResearchers at the Seward Marine Center are waiting like expectant parents to welcome an anticipated massive hatch of red and blue king crab eggs.
The hatch will mark an important milestone in efforts aimed at one day rebuilding wild stocks of red and blue king crab around Kodiak Island and the Pribilof Islands.

The project was launched last year at the urging of coastal communities and fishermen from Kodiak and the Pribilofs.

“These newly hatched crab will help us understand what is needed to succeed in large-scale hatchery restoration of red and blue king crab stocks in parts of Alaska where their numbers are low,” said Brian Allee, director of the Alaska Sea Grant program and manager of the Alaska king crab research and rehabilitation program. “In the months ahead, we’ll refine our understanding of the food, habitat and growing needs of these crab.”

The first batch of crab, expected to be more than 1 million in all, will not be released into the wild, Allee said. That phase of the project is still several years away and will require a state permit, following studies on the impacts of the crab on the environment and research to determine crab survival, predation, genetics and other factors.

“We don’t know enough about the survival and impacts of these crab to say we are ready for a pilot release program,” Allee said. “Right now, the research is focused on the mass-culturing needs.”

The Alaska king crab research and rehabilitation program was born out of a grassroots effort by fishermen and coastal communities to reverse a decades-long slump in wild king crab production. Red king crab stocks around Kodiak have not recovered since crashing in 1982, when commercial fishing was halted. Stocks of Pribilof and St. Matthew Island blue king crab have been low since the mid-1980s. Commercial fishing for the two distinct stocks has been closed most recently since 1999. King and other crab stocks are considered healthy and support vibrant fisheries in other parts of Alaska.

Last year, 58 red and blue king crab were collected under state permits from Alaska waters around Kodiak Island and St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs. The adult brood stock crab is under the supervision of the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward. They are being temporarily housed and cared for at the nearby Seward Marine Center, operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, until the hatchery has finished repairs and upgrades to support the crab research project.

After the larvae emerge from their eggs, the only appendages present are the mouthparts, which the larvae use to swim, said Brad Stevens, a former Kodiak-based federal crab biologist who now is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Within a few weeks, the crab reaches the shrimp-like glaucothoe stage, during which the larvae develop a tail, legs and claws. Eventually, the crab will grow to be among the largest crustaceans in the sea, Stevens said.

“The most amazing thing is that these tiny creatures, only one-sixteenth of an inch in length, can grow to be an 8- to 10-pound giant, with claws the length of a man’s arm,” Stevens said.

Last March, Alaska Sea Grant convened a workshop to discuss the state of scientific knowledge surrounding the mass culture and wild stock restoration of crabs. The international gathering highlighted several states and countries pursuing programs to restore depleted populations of wild crab.

The workshop led to calls by Alaska fishermen and coastal communities to establish a crab mass-culture program to rebuild king crab populations in parts of the state. Following the workshop, Alaska Sea Grant established the Alaska king crab research and rehabilitation program.

The program is an Alaska Sea Grant partnership with the United Fishermen’s Marketing Association, the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, City and Borough of Kodiak, the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Together the partners have contributed about $226,000 to the project.

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