KODIAK — A big test has never looked so small.
Swimming in a pair of plastic tanks within the first floor of the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center are 13,000 red king crab, each no bigger than half a pinky fingernail.
In three weeks, the first of these crab will be released into the ocean, marking the first time hatchery-raised Alaska king crab have been introduced into the wild, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reports.
“It’s certainly an exciting step; I’m waiting with bated breath to see what happens,” said Ginny Eckert, associate professor of fisheries for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and science director of the AKCRRAB project.
In 2006, scientists from around the world gathered in Kodiak for a symposium. Their mission: Figure out how to raise king crab in a hatchery, like salmon.
That year, the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology Program got its start. In the seven years since, federal and state scientists in Kodiak, Seward, Juneau and Oregon have solved the problems of raising king crab in an enclosed environment.
Now, they just have to figure out how to introduce those crab to the wild.
If they succeed, the impact could be enormous. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kodiak was the king crab capital of the world, a slogan proclaimed on banners hung throughout town. In 1966, Kodiak fishermen pulled in 94.4 million pounds of crab.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, crab prices spiked and fishermen pulled in millions of crab each year.
Then, in the early 1980s, the crab stopped coming. Kodiak has had no commercial king crab fishery since Jan. 15, 1983. In the final year, fishermen hauled just 8.7 million pounds of crab.
Critics have blamed overfishing, ocean changes or simple crab migration for the end of the king crab boom.
If crab could be raised in a hatchery and released into the wild, however, it could mean a return to the boom years.
Alaska’s salmon industry already benefits from hatchery production. This year, Kodiak fishermen are expected to harvest 17.4 million pink salmon. Of those, 10.5 million are expected to come from fish originally released by hatcheries.
Raising crab in a hatchery isn’t as simple as raising salmon. Crab are cannibalistic — they eat each other, especially when they’re young. They require specific water conditions and food, all of which had to be determined through experimentation. Red king crab also take several years to grow to harvestable size, much longer than salmon.
“We’ve learned a lot about the physiology of these animals,” Eckert said.
Now, the crab are in the hands of Bob Foy, laboratory director at the Kodiak research center.
Foy and three others will take the crab to a location off Old Harbor, where they will be released by divers in predefined sections of the ocean floor. There are few local crab, so the hatchery crab are not expected to interfere with the environment.
“The experiment is not just put crab into the ocean and come back in seven years to see what happens,” Foy said.
Divers will return to the stocking site week after week through December. They’ll be looking to see how many of the tiny crab survive predators and how they compete — or don’t — with any existing crab in the area.
“The goal is to run very controlled, designed experiments about what outstocking would do,” Foy said.
The crab will be distributed at different densities — 100 crab per square meter in one location, 50 per square meter in another. What works best? Scientists don’t know.
What size should the crab be when they’re released? Scientists don’t know.
What season is best for release? Scientists don’t know.
What kind of seafloor, sandy, rocky, or plant-strewn is best for crab? Scientists don’t know.
“These things need to happen before you can do any sort of massive release into the wild,” Foy said.
Heather McCarty, AKCRRAB’s industry liaison, said fisheries groups and seafood companies have supported the research so far and are keeping a cautious eye on the progress.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries and interest, but nothing like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can start a crab hatchery,’” she said.
It may take years for scientists to get the final word on hatchery crab, but each small step could be the breakthrough needed to make a big difference in Alaska fisheries.
“People are watching, there’s no question about that,” McCarty said.