For Brad Stevens, king crabs could return to Kodiak. Chalk that up to science and technology.
“Twenty years ago people would have said, ‘No,’ 10 years ago I was saying, ‘Maybe,’ and other people were still saying, ‘No,’ and now more people are saying, ‘Maybe’ ... because we’ve proven the technology all along at each step,” said Stevens.
A crustacean expert who worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service in town from 1984 to 2006, Stevens, 61, returned to town wielding his a new textbook, “King Crabs of the World: Biology and Fisheries Management” (CRC Press, 2014). Some 19 chapters are written by Stevens and fellow carcinologists.
For Stevens, deciding to compile the book, which has 23 authors and took three years to write, was a matter of time and opportunity. The goal was to get a body of peer-reviewed scientific literature on king crabs into one place before the sources of that knowledge became too dispersed.
“A bunch of other great scientists have retired or died in the last decade,” Stevens said. “They published articles but they’re all over the place. Some of them are hard to find. I felt that it was time to assemble as much of that in one place as I could and get as many of the people to contribute while they still could. And I found a place and time in my career when I had the time to do it.”
The several species of king crabs transformed Kodiak historically, and then, almost as a victim of its own success, Kodiak and nature essentially eradicated the king crab from its waters.
Stevens maintains that the Native diets did not include king crab, but it was much sought by Russian settlers starting in the late 18th century. Centuries later, Kodiak had become a boomtown due to the lucrative worldwide demand for the crustacean. One can indeed chart the course of Kodiak’s history of seafood through its city seal, which is adorned with a crab, a shrimp and a salmon on it, among other symbols.
But then, climate change and overfishing removed the king crab from Kodiak waters and the island changed yet again.
“There hasn’t been a king crab here since 1983, since before I arrived and began work in ’84. And that’s totally changed the town,” Stevens said. It went from a king crab and shrimp town to a pollock and cod town. Salmon’s always been around but pollock and cod and halibut came into their own after king crab and shrimp declined.”
Currently, a lot of work is being done in stock enhancement for king crab, raising them in controlled environments and then, Stevens hopes, releasing them into the wild where they could then begin propagating themselves. That remains to be seen.
Stevens, who admits that some of his ideas on better king crab practices could invite controversy, included them in the final chapter, the only section in which he did not seek peer reviews. The chapter is called “The Future of King Crab” and posits three main points:
Abolish minimum sizes. This ultimately reduces the size of the species in its gene pool and favors smaller animals.
Do not fish certain species of king crab. “Some of the species are so slow growing and have such low reproductive capacity that they probably can’t sustain a fishery,” Stevens said.
Throw no crabs back. That either damages or kills the crab, Stevens says.
An ideal outcome for stock enhancement would be a limited number of king crab fisheries available again. This is not just a dream; it is a bona fide “possibility” with smaller dimensions than in the boom years.
“There’s a possibility that we could enhance it so that there could be small local fisheries within certain bays,” he said. “I would not ever say it will be as big as it was back in the day because that required a certain type of climate and environment that we don’t have now.”