Marine research program at Seward hatchery births a crabby baby boom

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A research program at a Seward hatchery keyed to rebuilding collapsed king crab populations in several areas of Alaska has produced several million red king crab larvae.

The larvae under the care of staff at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery are the offspring of 12 egg-bearing adult king crab gathered from Bristol Bay last fall.

The research program, now in its second year, is designed to help scientists and policymakers decide if large-scale hatcheries can be used to rebuild collapsed king crab populations in such places as Kodiak and the Pribilof Islands.

The Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology Program, funded by federal, state and industry supporters, is run by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sea Grant research biologist Ben Daly said progress has been steady since the hatch began in March, with 2 million to 3 million red king crab larvae hatched.

Jim Swingle, research biologist at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, said there has been no adult mortality and all the crab are looking good, with the eggs healthy and developing normally.

As the adult crabs started to release their larvae, they were transferred to isolation chambers, allowing biologists to keep a close eye on each crab's progress, he said.

Over the next several months, scientists including University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Celeste Leroux will conduct experiments designed to evaluate how diet, culturing, density and other parameters affect larval growth and survival.

Researchers also will conduct density studies to learn how to properly house large numbers of crabs, which are highly cannibalistic in their early life stages.

No crabs will be released into the wild, Daly said.

Six other red king crabs went to the federal NOAA Fisheries laboratory on Kodiak Island. These crabs also have finished hatching their eggs, said research biologist Sara Persselin. Larvae from the crabs will be used in research to fine-tune the diet used to culture larval king crab.

Biologists with the research program are hopeful that what they learn can be used to improve wild king crab stock management, and one day may help decide if large-scale hatcheries could rebuild collapsed stocks.

"Red king crab stocks around Kodiak have not recovered from their low numbers since the 1980s, and blue king crab stocks around the Pribilofs also have had their ups and downs," said Brian Allee, director of Alaska Sea Grant. "The research we are engaged in now will give us the insight needed to decide whether crab stock rehabilitation using hatcheries is a viable option for rebuilding these stocks."

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