Would it work? Can you grow red kings in a hatchery? Can you ship those juvenile crabs to other maritime cities and release them into the ocean? Would they even survive transport and release?
In 2013, science got its answer: Yes, you can. That was the year researchers released 13,000 juvenile red king crabs into Kodiak Island waters at Old Harbor, using a carefully plotted mapping system on the sea floor.
“It was a huge success up to that point. That was the first year,” said Bob Foy, laboratory director of the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center, which is housing the second round of juvenile kings that are soon to see the ocean for the first time.
Next week, scientists are eager to enter their second phase of studying hatchery-grown red king crabs when they release 20,000 juveniles into Trident Basin. The release of crabs in 2013 and next week’s crab release stems from a 2006 symposium held in Kodiak at which fishery scientists asked the hatchery question. That symposium led to the creation of Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program — called AKCRRAB — which facilitated the start of hatchery-grown crab research and led to the successful 2013 release.
Now, though, there are more questions to be answered, and that’s where next week’s release comes into play.
“Our goal again this year is to learn more about this process,” Foy said of a range of biological questions researchers have about hatchery-raised crab. Those questions cover everything from predation to density populations, or how many crabs should you release in one spot, to the best time of year to release them, to cannibalism rates, among many other issues they hope to study.
“We had hoped to track them better in 2013, but it’s hard,” Foy said. “You can’t put a tag on a juvenile king crab.”
With the release next week, researchers plan to track the 2014 batch every day for a week, then every week for a month, then as monthly as possible. With the early phase of studying and releasing hatchery-grown king crab deemed a success, scientists are looking at expanding the program to blue kings and a few other species.
“We hope to take this to a level where we see more industry and more community involvement. So far, it’s just R and D,” Foy said, citing the common initials for research and development.
From the industry perspective, the potential impact on the state’s crabbing industry is huge. In the 1960s and ’70s, Kodiak was the king crab capital of Alaska, pulling in 94.4 million pounds of crab in 1966. In the early 1980s, crab stopped coming to Kodiak, and no one is sure if it was overfishing or environmental reasons or a combination of factors that saw kings disappear. In 1983, Kodiak’s commercial crabbing industry ended with a harvest of just 8.7 million pounds.
“The potential for bringing back the red king crab species is an exciting prospect,” said Heather McCarty, who works as AKCRRAB’s industry liaison between scientists, fishermen’s associations and the fishing business world. “We saw the need for rehabilitating the stocks in both the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.”
Ultimately, she said, the goal is to reintroduce red king stocks and increase kings in Alaska waters and to use the science behind hatchery-grown crab to see if it can boost other species’ rates.
“It’s kind of a multifaceted program right now,” she said. “ Our goal is to bring the crab back. In the meantime, we’re learning all sorts of things not known before like birth, growth and predation rates. Our mission is to further study and learn about crab in Alaska and to bring back these species that look like they’re in long-standing decline and to see if we can do something about it.”
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