Alaska Sea Grant launches multiagency effort to rebuild Kodiak red king crab stocks
"They look great, they're in fine shape," said Celeste Leroux, a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student, as she gingerly unpacked 32 plate-size crustaceans, some clutching burlap in their pinchers.
The crab were collected by Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologists in Alitak Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Sara Persselin, a NOAA Fisheries research biologist, prepared the crab for their flight from Kodiak to Anchorage. A van ride to the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery along the Seward waterfront completed their journey.
Scientists say 16 egg-bearing female crab will serve as brood stock in a research project they hope will help rebuild Alaska's Kodiak red king crab fishery. In addition, 16 male crab were captured for pathology and genetic analysis by ADF&G.
For a time during the 1960s, Kodiak Island waters teemed with red king crab. Kodiak itself became the center of a crab fishing bonanza. At its peak in 1965, fishermen harvested more than 94 million pounds of crab worth about $12 million. Fortunes were made, but the boom soon went bust. By the early 1980s, Kodiak red king crab stocks had collapsed and the fishery all but disappeared. Decades of fishing restrictions since have failed to return these populations to anything close to what they were in their heyday. Brian Allee, director of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, said the time is right to try something new.
"This is the first step down a very long path," said Allee. Allee is leading the Alaska Sea Grant effort to bring fishermen, state and federal fishery managers, and university scientists together in a collaborative effort to breed king crab in captivity. If it proves successful, Allee said, researchers would seek state permits to conduct a pilot release of juvenile crab to learn whether crab cultured in captivity can survive in the wild.
Allee said Pribilof Island communities also are interested in rebuilding their local blue king crab stocks. He said a plan is being worked out to capture blue king crab brood stock from Pribilof waters for culture as well.
Allee said these initial efforts are small-scale, essentially to understand the nutritional and culturing needs of red king crab in captivity. But if they prove successful, they could open the door to construction of large-scale crab hatcheries that would seed Alaska waters with tens of millions of king crab in a bid to jump-start sluggish wild production. The hatcheries might operate much like the state's salmon hatcheries that release hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon into the wild to grow to adult size and be caught by fishermen.
"Large-scale hatchery release of king crab is still years away," Allee said. "Right now, we have to prove the feasibility of the idea. There are lots of questions to be answered before investing in hatcheries on the scale used to enhance wild salmon stocks."
Among the questions: Can large numbers of crab be economically cultivated, would they survive in the wild, and what impact would hatchery-bred crab have on wild stocks?
The Alaska King Crab Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project is a cooperative effort of Alaska Sea Grant, the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, NOAA Fisheries, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. For more information, see below and also links at left.