KODIAK — On Independence Day, while the rest of us were barbecuing hotdogs and watching parades, Dr. Robert Foy was counting golden king crab larvae.

“Right now, the moms we brought in – their eggs are hatching,” said Foy. “It’s super exciting. That’s why I was so swamped on the Fourth of July. I spent five hours counting babies.”

Foy is the director of Kodiak Laboratory, part of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center – the northernmost of five regional science centers within the National Marine Fisheries Service. The lab is housed in the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center, a Kodiak Island Borough facility built in 1998. The research that Foy and his team are doing doesn’t just end up in obscure science publications; it is in direct support of the fishing industry.

Most of the work done at the Kodiak Laboratory is focused on crab species. Specifically, Foy has dedicated much of the past decade to one issue. 

“There is a major concern about ocean acidification,” he said. “We need to be worried about it.”

Foy explained that there is a three-fold process that takes place. Their number one priority is to assess federal crab stocks in Alaska. There are ten species from the $700 million Alaska crab fishery that the lab assesses. Every year, two trawlers head out to the Bering Sea to conduct the surveys.

“First and foremost we go out into the Bering Sea, we cover an area which is 150,000 nautical square miles and we count every crab in it,” said Foy. “We also conduct surveys north of there. There’s no commercial fisheries up there, but we look in the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea, so we’re looking at the crab resources in the Arctic as well.” 

The crab fishing industry also contributes a substantial amount of funding to complement the research.

“They have realized that without science they don’t have a resource,” said Foy. 

This leads to the second part of the work: management. 

The data from these surveys is used to calculate density of current crab stocks. In simple terms, Foy said, it gives them a good idea of how many crab there are per nautical square mile. 

“Then we take that to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council,” said Foy. “I chair one of the teams which is involved the council process, where these numbers are vetted and then they go into stock assessment.” 

To assess the stock, they plug the survey data into a mathematical model. The model takes huge numbers of variables into consideration (how many offspring are likely to be produced, how many are likely to die naturally, etc) and calculates how many crab should be harvested to sustain stock levels. Although that sounds simple, the process is deeply complicated and involves assessing stock levels far into the future. According to Foy, it can take hours for the models to run.

The Crab Plan Team (of which Foy is the chair) then passes this information onto the Science and Statistical Team, which looks at things like economics, as dictated in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“So then you’re not just thinking about science and math, but communities as well,” said Foy.

The NPFMC then makes the final rulings. 

In order to run stock assessment models effectively, a lot of information is required.

“How fast does a crab grow? How many die? What’s the natural mortality rate?” said Foy. “What happens when Mother Nature gives you the coldest year on record in 2012? What happens when she turns around and gives you the warmest year on record in 2016?”

The effects of this kind of variability makes managing a fishery very difficult. And this is where the third part comes in: research.

Downstairs from Foy’s office is the Seawater Facility, which is referred to as “the wet lab.” The lab is loud with the sound of churning water and machinery. There are large pipes everywhere, that are low and numerous enough to necessitate ducking while walking through certain parts of the lab.

Foy explained that intake pipes bring seawater directly from the ocean up to a tower on the side of the building. 1,200 gallons of seawater can then be pumped into the lab every minute. 

A number of large tanks, that look like oversized jacuzzis, house various species of crab. Foy lifted up one of the covers to reveal piles of male and female golden king crab. Foy fished one out and held it aloft by the legs. From leg to leg, it measured roughly two foot.

“The idea is to learn how these animals survive – the biology and the ecology of the animal,” he said.

Foy said if management does not adapt to climate change, various coastal communities could be in economic trouble.

“You see it here – you have the cod collapse; we have an issue with salmon right now,” said Foy. “From an economic perspective, the second or third largest commercial fishing port in the nation is in a lot of trouble … we’re kind of that tie between the management and the biology.”

Up until maybe a decade ago, the lab work was about studying the effects of natural temperature variation, i.e. what happens to crab during a cold year or a warmer year.

“More recently, we have been focusing on actual climate change,” said Foy. “The fact that it’s not just up and down every year, but we’re getting warmer. Acidification is increasing. We know these things for a fact.”

Foy said that the effects of climate change are already having an impact on certain species. He pointed to whale mortalities, seabird die-offs and various fishery collapses as evidence of this. The work at the Kodiak Laboratory is focused on the effects on one very specific side effect of climate change – ocean acidification and its impact on crab.

In short, ocean acidification works like this: There’s more carbon dioxide in the air; roughly 30 percent ends up in the ocean; carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid, thereby decreasing the pH level of the water.

One of the effects of this is the chemical reaction of carbon dioxide entering the water results in less carbonate in the water.

“Shell-building animals, like a crab, builds its shell out of calcium and carbonate,” said Foy. 

The combination of a lower pH and less carbonate is likely bad news for crab species, leaving them in more stress and making it harder for them to build shells. The long-term effects of this are not yet known.

“So that’s what we study. We expose these animals to these different conditions and raise them in their different life stages.”

On a shelf in the lab lie piles of fully intact crab molts. Foy picked up one of the shells to show where the crab crawls out as it grows.

“Underneath, there’s a new soft skin being developed, just like our skin,” he said. “That skin has all the protein, just no calcium or carbonate. When they crawl out, they start taking calcium from their bloodstream and carbonate from the water [through their gills] and putting it into that skin. And then it hardens seven days later.” 

Foy said that if the pH messes up their ability to get the calcium through the gills or there’s no carbonate, it could, for example, take longer for them to harden up. At that point, they would likely be more vulnerable to predators.

Ocean acidification may not cause issues for all species of crab. For example, Kodiak Laboratory found that testing the effects of these conditions on snow crab had no impact on their rates of survival or growth. The genetics and natural habitat of snow crab mean that the species is better adapted to a changing pH. 

On the other hand, research that Foy and his team conducted on red king crab garnered results that showed decreased growth and increased mortality at all stages of life. Part of the research involved running a stock assessment model using ocean conditions that scientists expect to see over the next 50-100 years. Foy went on to explain the worst case scenario If red king crabs don’t acclimate.

“What happens is the stock fails 20 years after the Bering Sea reaches a certain pH. What that means is our expectation is: If these animals don’t adapt … about 20 years after the Bering Sea reaches a pH of 7.8, the red king crab stock will be no more,” said Foy. “And we expect the Bering Sea to reach a pH of 7.8 in about 50 years. So we’ve got about 100 years left, which might seem like a long time, but it’s not.”

The research conducted at the lab involves holding different species of crab for years at a time, mating them and raising the offspring under different conditions. The lab has conducted this kind of research on snow crab, tanner crab and red king crab. Just recently the lab has moved onto a new species: golden king crab.

Over the past decade, the lab has published numerous papers that show that acidification leaves some species of crab in trouble. Now, Foy said, there is a new question that they are trying to answer: what is the probability of acclimation? 

“We’re looking at genetics,” he said. “We’ve started to look at cellular and molecular levels to say: Can this crab eventually make it? Or maybe if mom doesn’t make it, if she has enough offspring that are exposed, maybe a third of them can actually do OK … and then maybe their offspring survive.”

The female golden king crab that are currently hatching came from the Aleutian Islands. During the week the Foy brought a Kodiak Daily Mirror reporter into the lab, hundreds of thousands of crab embryos were hatching.

“She’s releasing her babies right now and we want to catch the babies,” said Foy. “Look in that bucket right there.”

Water was flowing from one tank into a much smaller container. Amidst the flow, just about visible, were miniscule golden king crab offspring. A female crab will release roughly 200,000 of them on average.

Some of these larvae will be raised in water that has a pH of 7.8, which is what they expect the level of the ocean to be in about 30-40 years. Others will be raised in water with a pH of 7.5, which is the level they expect the ocean to be in 50-80 years. They also raise crab in “ambient” tanks, which is filled with the sea water today. Blood will be taken from the animals on a regular basis and any genetic changes will be measured.

In a separate room, a crab larva was having its portrait taken under a microscope. 

The microscope was rigged up to a camera, which was hooked up to a computer. Using a tiny pair of tweezers, biological technician Connor Cleary was delicately moving the larvae to show its tail, its spines, its beating heart. It looked almost like a full-color sonogram. Foy joked about the creature’s likeness to something out of the movies “Alien” or “Predator”.

“We’re staging the life cycle of the golden king crab,” said Cleary. “So this is the first stage after they get released from the female king crabs … so we bring them in here and we take photos of them so we can see at what developmental stage they are currently.”

Foy explained that golden king crab go through four “zoeal stages” and, unlike other species, they don’t eat during these stages. Among the things that they’re analyzing is the effect of acidification during this process.

“It’s called lecithotrophic,” said Foy. “That means when they hatched out of that egg, they have all the energy they’re going to get to go through these different phases … so there’s a lot of mortality that happens at these phases. So that’s what we’re looking at – now, they’re under more stress while they’re trying to develop through these different stages.” 

While crab is the focus, there are numerous other projects taking place in the lab.

In one corner, there’s a tank with a red pacific octopus (Foy said she had been mad with him recently); in another, a room full of kelp. Foy explained that one of the side projects that the lab is doing is looking at aquaculture. Like the crab surveys, it’s a collaboration with industry – the lab is working with Blue Evolution, the company providing Kodiak’s kelp farmers with seeds and a market for the product.

“We’re trying to increase aquaculture research,” said Foy. “You’ve heard about the kelp farming that’s going on? Well the kelp are all raised here.” 

In another section of the lab, a newer machine that they’re in the process of getting up and running will specifically measure levels of ocean acidification.

“This will help prove that it’s actually happening,” said Foy.

Following the tour, Foy walked through a door at the far end of the lab. It led directly into the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center’s aquarium, which is open to the public. A large cylindrical tank at the center holds various kinds of fish found in and around Kodiak.

“And this is the fun part,” said Foy, pointing out all the difference species. 

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