Preparations for egg hatch at crab research centre

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
13 February 2007, at 12:00am

SEWARD, ALASKA - It's not even tourist season. Yet sometime in the next couple of months, the population of this small coastal town will surge into the hundreds of thousands. But few people will notice. There's plenty of room for all.

The arrivals are expected to be newborn red and blue king crab larvae, each one the size of the tip of a pencil. All together, it is expected that more than a million king crabs will hatch at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Seward Marine Center in the coming weeks. This will mark an important milestone in efforts aimed at eventually rebuilding wild king crab stocks around Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands.

"We feel like expectant parents," said Brian Allee, director of Alaska Sea Grant and manager of the Alaska King Crab Research and Rehabilitation Program. The program was launched in 2006 at the urging of coastal communities and fishermen from Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands.

"These newly hatched crab will help us understand what is needed to succeed in large-scale hatchery restoration of red and blue king crab stocks in parts of Alaska where their numbers are low," said Allee. "In the months ahead, we'll refine our understanding of the food, habitat, and growing needs of these crab."

This first batch of crab are not to be released into the wild as yet, according to Allee. That period of the project is still several years away; a state permit following studies on the impacts of the crab on the environment and research to determine crab survival, predation, genetics, and other factors will be required.

"We don't know enough about the survival and impacts of these crab to say we are ready for a pilot release program," said Allee. "Right now, the research is focused on the mass-culturing needs."

The Alaska King Crab Research and Rehabilitation Program was born out of a grassroots effort by fishermen and coastal communities in order to reverse a decades-long slump in wild king crab production. Red king crab stocks around Kodiak have not recovered since crashing in 1982, when commercial fishing was halted. Stocks of Pribilof and St. Matthew Island blue king crab have been low since the mid-80s. Commercial fishing for the two distinct stocks has been closed since 1999. King and other crab stocks are considered healthy and support vibrant fisheries in other parts of Alaska.

In 2006, 58 red and blue king crab were collected under state permits from Alaska waters around Kodiak Island and Saint Paul Island in the Pribilofs. The adult broodstock crab are under the supervision of the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward. They are being temporarily taken care of at the nearby Seward Marine Center, conducted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, until the hatchery finishes repairs and upgrades to support the crab research project.

During the hatching period, the larvae bear a likeness to tiny shrimp, with mouthparts that the larvae use to swim, according to Brad Stevens, a former Kodiak-based federal crab biologist who is presently a professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Within weeks, the larvae reach the glaucothoe (GLOCK-O-THO-EE) stage - at which time they molt into their crab form. The crab will eventually grow to be among the largest crustaceans in the sea, Stevens said.

"The most amazing thing is that these tiny creatures, only 1/16th of an inch in length, can grow to be an eight- to ten-pound giant, with claws the length of a man's arm," said Stevens.