SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Research goal: more king crab in every pot
By Jeff Stephan, Heather McCarty and Gale Vick


October 01, 2008

The Deadliest Catch it's not, but the results of a research project in Seward might be just as intriguing to skippers of the rugged Bering Sea crab fleet as the next installment of the adrenalin-pumping television show. After all, the goal of the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology (AKCRRAB) program is to fill king crab pots throughout Alaska.

The tiny king crab clinging to tufts of artificial seaweed in conical shaped tanks in the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward were hatched by a team of scientists and research biologists in the early phases of a project designed to help restore long-depressed king crab stocks. The project is a unique partnership between the crab industry, coastal communities, Native groups, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (SFOS) and the Alaska Sea Grant College Program.

In only its second year, AKCRRAB's research team made great progress in 2008 toward mass production of juvenile king crab and successfully launched a host of scientific studies that should result in greatly improved information about Alaska's king crab stocks. The project is focusing its research on eventually rehabilitating stocks of Kodiak red king crab and Pribilof Islands blue king crab, but the technology and research also can be used to help restore king crab populations in Kachemak Bay, Southeast Alaska or anywhere else in the state.

The hatchery's production biologists were very successful in spawning both stocks
of crab this year, producing 40,000 juveniles or 10 percent of the hatched larvae, compared to only 1 per cent in 2007. The hatchery team's goal for 2009 is to improve overall survival rates through the larval stages to more than 50 percent.

For comparison, a successful hatchery program for Chesapeake Bay blue crab produced 5 percent survival to the juvenile stage in its first few years.

At the same time, project scientists are engaged in several projects that will increase the information available to state and federal researchers and the resource agencies that manage Alaska's important king crab stocks. These include:

  • studies of predation of juvenile crab by a host of predators, such as rock sole and Pacific cod;
  • experiments with tagging, a challenge with crustaceans that continually shed their shells;
  • identification of substrate preferences of both crab larvae and juvenile crab;
  • a cataloging of the genetic makeup of wild king crab stocks throughout the state;
  • studies that examine the interaction between wild and hatchery-produced juveniles; and
  • dietary requirements of larvae and juvenile king crab.

AKCRRAB also plans to conduct habitat studies around the Pribilofs and Kodiak to determine the location of preferred habitats in the two regions, continue with genetic research and gather other information that should significantly improve the tools available to resource agencies to effectively manage the king crab resources of Alaska.

The project is developing the critical mass of scientific knowledge and understanding of hatchery-based crab culture technology to produce enough healthy juvenile crab for a rehabilitation and enhancement program by 2011. Much work needs to be accomplished over the next three years and some research will continue beyond that point. In addition to supporting the rehabilitation goal, the research thrust of the project will substantially increase the body of knowledge available to state and federal resource managers regarding the early life stages of king crab.

The best science in the world by itself will not be enough to make the stocking of juvenile king crab a reality. That is a decision which can be made only after the agencies, king crab industry and coastal communities closely examine the costs and benefits of a rehabilitation program. AKCRRAB will analyze the economic feasibility of rehabilitation programs as production costs become known and critical issues such as tagging or marking hatchery juveniles are resolved.

The success of producing juvenile crab is the highlight of recent AKCRRAB activities, but the harvesting of this year's egg-bearing female blue king crab from wild stocks might be the activity most worthy of a spot on the Deadliest Catch. A variety of circumstances delayed this activity last season to the point where the crab had to be taken through the ice offshore of Little Diomede Island by local subsistence harvesters with assistance by Nome Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent Heidi Herter. Just keeping the catch alive for the helicopter ride back to Nome was quite a challenge.

Funding for the project has come from a variety of sources, including contributions by the crab industry and coastal communities, federal and state grants, and support from Sea Grant, SFOS and NMFS.

Jeff Stephan, Heather McCarty and Gale Vick


About: All three authors are members of the AKCRRAB steering committee and were involved in the founding of the program. Jeff Stephan, manager of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association in Kodiak, has been involved in Alaska seafood, fisheries management and marine research for the past 31 years.

Heather McCarty is a consultant who deals with fisheries regulatory and marine research issues for the Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, the CDQ entity for St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs.

Gale Vick, executive director of the Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, is a commercial salmon fisher who is active in fisheries issues.


On the Web:

Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology Program

Received September 29, 2008 - Published October 01, 2008


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska