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PUBLISHED: 5:04 PM on Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Project takes crab from lab to the wild

Laine Welch

Batches of baby king crab could soon be growing in Kodiak Island waters, and scientists will be carefully nurturing their growth and progress.

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 related story)

Big crabs pinch markets

Crab is often sold in sections or clusters, according to how many legs make up a ten pound box. Picture just four legs totaling ten pounds, and you get an idea of the size of the king crab coming from the Barents Sea.

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.

'Deadliest Catch' reels in viewers

The Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch series has become of the top rated non-sports shows on cable television.

According to Media Life, the show, now in its second season, chronicles Alaska crab fisherman enduring freezing temperatures and waves up to 40 feet as they struggle to land crabs in giant 700-pound pots.

"If that sounds nearly impossible, and also sort of insane, consider this: While crab fishermen have an injury rate of nearly 100 percent, they can also support their families for an entire year through just a few months of work," an article said.

"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."

Welch, who lives in Kodiak, has written about Alaska's seafood industry since 1988.


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