Larval crab from the laboratory to the wild
By Laine Welch
May 09, 2006
If all goes according to plan, the project will be the first in Alaska to advance larval crab from the laboratory to the wild. The crab will be hatched from ten Bering Sea females this fall at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery at Seward, a first for that facility which until now has only raised and provided spat for oysters and clams. By next summer, as many as 200,000 tiny king crab may be transplanted at Trident Basin, not far from downtown Kodiak.
"We'll be putting them in predator avoidance structures so the little critters won't end up as cod bait," said Brian Allee, director of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, a sponsor of the project.
Once the crabs are outplanted from their hatchery home, it will be a matter of waiting and watching in the waters of Kodiak. "It takes about five years for a crab to mature, and eight years before it's market size," said federal crab biologist Sara Persselin, who will train and lead a multi-site research team for the project. Persselin has worked closely for six years with Dr. Brad Stevens, one of the world's top authorities on king crab, at the Near Island Research Facility at Kodiak.
"We might include a 'crab cam' so anyone could log onto their computer and watch the baby crab," Persselin said. She added that researchers will eventually track the crab movements and migration with a genetic marking technique called micro satellite tags.
Persselin, Allee and Brad Stevens are among the many Alaska scientists and educators who are building on the momentum created in March, when experts from several countries came to Kodiak to share science and stories about crab enhancement. (Crab enhancement is not "farming;" rather, it involves growing crab to a certain size and releasing them into the wild, similar to Alaska's salmon hatcheries.)
"As we understand more about crab culturing and transplanting, it could be replicated in other parts of the state. It is exciting to partner with communities that are so enthusiastic," said Allee.
The enthusiasts need only point
to the Barents Sea, atop Norway and Russia, where king crab was
transplanted fifty years ago. Estimates now peg the population
at more than 12 million giant crabs, and growing strong. (See
The crabs are whoppers, averaging ten pounds. They can top 20 pounds and measure five feet across. According to market expert John Sackton, two U.S. companies Keyport Foods and Pacific Seafoods - have partnered with the major Russian crab producers, which control about 80 percent of the region's quota. This year the quota is three million animals, or roughly 30 million pounds. That compares to a king crab catch of 18 million pounds from Alaska (where the average weight is 6.5 pounds).
Sackton said Alaska crab pioneers liken the Barents Sea to the crab booms in Kodiak and Bristol Bay 30 years ago, but they are applying lessons learned. The companies mandate selective fishing gear that catches only jumbo crab, leaving the smaller ones and females on the bottom.
The Norwegians have a very different approach to the commercialization of the Barents king crab fishery, Sackton said. They divide up shares of the crab (200,000 animals this year) among thousands of small boat fishermen, each getting several hundred crab.
The large volume of Barents
Sea crab has had a downward effect on all other competing sizes
in the marketplace. Prices for crab legs have dropped 40 percent
since 2003, Sackton said, adding that "the market hasn't
caught up to the value of the huge crab." Notably, it is
selling for just $10.99 a pound at Costco outlets. Sackton said
Barents Sea king crab is "a fishery on the rise," and
the selective harvesting combined with the robust recruitment
of the stock mean it will be around for a long time.
"By combining rock music and lively narration with an active show format, where the show's subjects often drop by to answer viewer questions, Discovery has produced cable's highest-rated non-sports show among adults 25-54," Media Life said. Ratings for the program are higher in every U.S. region and age group, and up 23 percent from season one.
The program is credited by some buyers for "having an impact on consumer consciousness of crab." A local columnist wrote: "If you watch it, I guarantee you'll never look at a crab the same way again."
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