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Fish Factor

King crab detectives digging deep to find answers
By Laine Welch


November 11, 2005

King crab detectives are digging deep to find answers to Kodiak's disappearing crab stocks.

More than 100 million pounds of king crab crossed the Kodiak docks in the 1960's. The catch dwindled to a few million pounds a year in the early 1970's, and by 1983 the King Crab Capitol of the World was no more. Now, crab researchers will leave no stone unturned as they try to solve one of Alaska's most enduring fishery mysteries.
jpg Laine Welch

"A key part is to try and reconstruct the history of the king crab stock. That's the launching pad to exploring all of the different hypotheses," said Dr. Gordon Kruse of the UAF/School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at Juneau.  Kruse and co-worker Bill Bechtol came to Kodiak two weeks ago to announce the start of the three year project, and to meet with fishermen and others with knowledge of the local crab stocks. "They've seen changes and collected things that simply aren't reflected in any surveys or data," Bechtol said. 

Armed with funding from Alaska Sea Grant, the North Pacific Research Board and the Rasmuson Foundation,  the researchers will look at "every scrap of data" starting from the earliest management and catch records, surveys, dock side samples, observations, and anecdotes. "We want to get a consistent picture of the changes in the stock throughout its history. We're taking a balanced approach that starts at the beginning and considers all the possible alternatives," Kruse said.

Many point to overfishing as the cause of the king crab collapse around Kodiak Island, but Kruse believes many natural factors also must be considered.  "We're all aware of major climate changes that occurred in the Gulf of Alaska since the 1970's. That affected ocean currents and temperatures, which are generally warmer than in the past," he said. 

Kruse added: "Local fishermen tell us about changes in the ecosystem involving predatory sand fleas and jellyfish, or how things might have changed over time with the development of cod and pollock fisheries. Some spoke about the influx of otters that maybe had an impact on the crab stocks and could play a role in its recovery," Kruse said. 

The first step to solving the mystery will be to develop a complete set of hypotheses from all of the data. The team will then put it all together and look at the evidence that is either for or against each theory.  Anyone with ideas or knowledge about the Kodiak Island king crab fishery can contact Gordon Kruse in Juneau at 907-796-2052 or Gordon.kruse@uaf.ed.
CROPS OF KING CRAB ­ For the first time ever, a small group of experts from around the world will gather in Kodiak to exchange ideas on enhancing Alaska's king crab stocks. "Crab cultivation is already underway in Japan, Russia, Norway, Chile and Argentina. This will allow us to find out what others around the world are doing," said Dr. Brad Stevens, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who is also cultivating king crab at his lab at the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center.

Crab enhancement should not be confused with crab farming. "We're talking about  capturing female crabs with eggs, hatching them, raising them to a certain size and releasing them into the wild, similar to Alaska's salmon hatcheries. Enhancement is all about putting the crabs back into their natural environment," Stevens explained. He added: "Get the tiny crab past some point of a survival bottleneck - that  might be 10 percent of your mortality right there." Stevens also stressed that crab cultivation should not be viewed as a competing industry, as it provides more animals into the wild capture fishery.

Stevens said it is important for Alaska to keep track of what is going on in other countries.  "Before it hits us in the face in the next five to ten years, and suddenly the market is   flooded with enhanced king crabs, and we're wondering how we got left out. The train is coming down the track and I want us to be on it," he said.

The Alaskan Crab Enhancement Workshop is set for March 14 and 15 at Kodiak College, followed by a presentation on March 16 at ComFish. Funding has been provided by Alaska Sea Grant, the City and Borough of Kodiak, and United Fishermen's Marketing Association. Organizers are hopeful that donations also will come from NOAA Fisheries, the crab industry, coastal communities and the state. Questions? Contact .
EXXON DEMONSTRATION AT FISH EXPO ­ Fishermen frustrated by Exxon's refusal to pay punitive damages stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill are organizing a peaceful demonstration this month at the Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle. "We've been left holding the bag for too long and we're tired of it," said Bill Black a Cordova fisherman and event organizer.

According to ExxposeExxon, a supporter of the demonstration, the oil giant in October posted quarterly profits of $10 billion, the largest in U.S. corporate history. "Meanwhile, they haven't paid what they owe Alaska's fishing families from the oil spill caused by a drunken tanker skipper," Black said. The Exxon demonstration is scheduled for 3pm, Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Expo entrance. Contact is
GRANTS FOR GOOD CAUSES - The call is out for funding requests for worthy programs and projects throughout Alaska. American Seafood Company is awarding $30,000 next month as part of its annual $75,000 community grant program. Since 1997, American Seafoods has donated more than $500,000 for Alaska projects that deal primarily with issues such as hunger, housing, safety, education, research and cultural activities. Applications are available from Kim Lynch at 206-256-2659 or at . Deadline to apply is November 21. Funding decisions will be announced by the ASC Community Advisory Board on December 5.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.


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