Fishermen collect Pribilof blue king crab for Alaska hatchery research program

Blues join red king crab already in Seward

12/4/2006

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NR: SG-2006/NR244

St. Paul, Alaska—For the first time in nearly a decade, fishermen late last month harvested blue king crab from waters surrounding this remote Pribilof Island fishing community in the Bering Sea. But the crabs they caught were not destined for the seafood display case. Instead, the crabs were collected as part of a fisherman-led effort aimed at rebuilding the island's collapsed blue king crab fishery.

blue crabsThe crabs, 15 egg-bearing females and 13 additional males and non-egg bearing females, will serve as brood stock and research specimens for the Alaska King Crab Research and Rehabilitation Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). The program, run by the NOAA Alaska Sea Grant Program at UAF, seeks to develop and test techniques to mass-culture king crab. The long-term goal is to develop with state and federal partners a plan to release hatchery-born wild king crab into the wild.

"Collecting these blue king crab from Pribilof Island home waters is another important milestone in our efforts to revitalize king crab stocks that have fallen to unacceptably low levels in parts of the state," said Brian Allee, director of Alaska Sea Grant. "We all are extremely pleased that the process of understanding the large-scale culturing needs of the region's blue king crab has begun, and that we have taken another major step toward eventually restoring wild blue king crab to the region."

All 28 crabs arrived safely November 25 at the Seward Marine Center, a research facility in Seward, Alaska, operated by the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The Seward Marine Center will house the animals while extensive repairs are being made to the flood-damaged Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, where studies on feeding requirements, development and other culturing requirements will take place.

The Central Bering Sea Fishermen's Association (CBSFA) and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association (APICDA) are partners with Alaska Sea Grant and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in the blue king crab research program.

Jeff SleerCBSFA secured the required Alaska Department of Fish and Game permit to collect the Pribilof blue king crab, and contracted with 25-year veteran fisherman Bill Widing and his vessel Aleutian Beauty to harvest the crab. Widing and his crew used commercial crab pots to catch the crabs in late November 12 miles northeast of the Pribilof Island of St. Paul in the Central Bering Sea. The live crabs were placed in the hold with circulating seawater and transported to St. Paul, and were then flown to Anchorage inside coolers lined with ice packs and wet burlap. From there, the crabs were transported by van to Seward. A federal fisheries observer was aboard the Aleutian Beauty during the collection to record data such as size, sex, location and time of catch, and to ensure that non-target species were released unharmed.

"CBSFA has undertaken with APICDA this first critical step toward restoring blue king crab to benefit the Bering Sea resources and our fishing-dependent communities of the Pribilof Islands," said Heather McCarty, CBSFA blue king crab program leader. "We are pleased that all of the logistics worked out and that the crabs were caught and delivered safely to the hatchery."

Pribilof Island blue king crab populations plummeted in the early 1980s, but showed tentative signs of recovery in the early to mid-1990s. However, low abundance has kept the commercial fishery closed since 1998. At its peak in 1981, 14 million pounds of blue king crab, worth about $10 million, filled the pots of the region's fishermen. To protect the blue king crab, commercial fishing for the more abundant red king crab also has remained closed.

The communities of St. Paul and St. George on the Pribilof Islands are heavily invested in the region's pollock, crab, and other fisheries through their participation in the federal Community Development Quota (CDQ) program. The CBSFA, which represents St. Paul, is invested in six Bering Sea crab vessels, and owns a considerable stake in Royal Aleutian Seafoods, which has a large share of the crab processing quota throughout the region, including the Pribilof red and blue king crab fisheries. APICDA owns a 50 percent stake in two Bering Sea crab vessels, and a minority interest in a third combination crab/trawl vessel.

The Pribilof blue king crab join 15 female egg-bearing Kodiak red king crab collected during July in an effort led by the United Fishermen's Marketing Association (UFMA), National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to restore local king crab populations and re-open the commercial fishery that has been closed around Kodiak for nearly 25 years due to low crab numbers. Another 15 male red king crab were collected for genetics and pathology studies.

"Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands share the goal of revitalizing our crab fisheries for a sustainable future commercial fishing industry," said Jeff Stephan, manager of UFMA. "We have a great deal of hope for the future of this research and rehabilitation program."

Larvae from both the red and blue king crab are expected to hatch sometime in late January and into February from egg clutches carried by females. The exact timing of the larval hatch is largely dependent on water temperature. Individual adult crab take about one month to hatch their eggs. Scientists expect the Pribilof blue and Kodiak red king crab to produce more than one million larvae for research studies.

While there is hope that these efforts will result in one day restoring wild king crab stocks to waters around the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island, that day is still years away, cautioned Alaska Sea Grant's Brian Allee.

"A lot of work needs to be done first to understand the culturing needs, and then to see if a pilot release project is successful," said Allee. "Many factors in the wild will affect the success of this effort. But we really believe it has a good chance for success."

Allee, who joined Alaska Sea Grant in 2003, is a former director of the Fisheries Rehabilitation and Enhancement Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He led the state's salmon hatchery program during the late 1980s. From 1982 to 1987 Allee led the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, a system of salmon hatcheries that annually release about 600 million salmon fry and smolts into the North Pacific in support of the region's commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries.

Blue king crab get their name from the distinct blue color of their shells. However, two of the crabs that fishermen collected were nearly pink in color, said graduate student Celeste Leroux. Leroux traveled to St. Paul to oversee the shipment of the crabs to Seward.

"That was quite a surprise," Leroux said. "The boat's crew and the federal observer were in disagreement over which species they had caught. The crabs could be a hybrid between red and blue king crab or simply a rare color for one species. We need to carefully inspect them in the lab and get some genetics work done. The observer noted that even the eggs were distinctly different from either red or blue king crab, so I'm interested to see what we find."

Alaska's crab fishermen have for years hoped that fishing closures would rebuild depressed crab stocks likely affected by factors including overfishing, management problems, and changes in the ocean ecosystem. But while several crab stocks are doing well, Kodiak red king crab and Pribilof blue king crab stocks have not recovered. Calls to develop a king crab hatchery system have waxed and waned since the early 1990s. At a March 2006 meeting in Kodiak of scientists, managers, and commercial crab fishermen, fishermen once again voiced strong support for restoring these crab populations by culturing wild crab larvae in hatcheries. This support led Alaska Sea Grant to establish the Alaska King Crab Research and Rehabilitation Program. Partners in the program include fishing organizations, community leaders, state and federal scientists, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska Sea Grant and the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery.