Scientists in Newport may hold key to future of Alaska king crab


NEWPORT, Ore. – Both the red and blue varieties of Alaska king crab have declined significantly and as resource managers struggle to determine why, a small team of scientists in a most unlikely location is working on an insurance policy – trying to raise crabs from the larval stage to juveniles in a hatchery setting.

The idea isn’t to immediately begin seeding the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska with hatchery-raised youngsters, the scientists say. It is to see if it’s even feasible – in case it’s needed in the future.

And this all is taking place in Newport, Ore., where the only places to find king crab are in stores and restaurants. In Oregon, the Dungeness reigns supreme among crabs; but Newport is also the site of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, a place that more than a dozen scientists and technicians from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center call home.

The reason for locating at HMSC is simple, according to Allan Stoner, who directs the Alaska Fisheries group in Newport. “The OSU lab provides seawater facilities rivaling any in the country for research with cold-water species, and our biologists have more than 25 years experience working with the systems here,” he said.

In the OSU laboratories, where clean seawater is pumped daily from Yaquina Bay, the scientists will try to perfect culture of king crab through the juvenile stages – and explore whether or not the young crabs can be conditioned or “trained” to select good habitat and avoid predators. Hatchery-reared animals are “often deficient in these tasks,” Stoner pointed out.

“Pacific halibut are death on crabs,” Stoner said. “We’re going to see if experience with young halibut about 25 centimeters long helps the juvenile crabs to learn avoidance behavior. Pacific cod can also be a problem, though they aren’t as aggressive as halibut. If these controlled experiments work, we’ll test similarly trained crabs in the field in Alaska.”

The Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program – known as AKCRRAB –  received $303,000 from the NOAA SeaGrant Aquaculture Research Program, and an additional $157,000 in matching funds from Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska, and Alaska SeaGrant for the project, some of which will support the Newport research.

AKCRRAB scientists from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery have made great strides in producing king crab larva that can survive in hatcheries. Their early experiments, in 2007, generated just a 2 percent survival rate and a few thousand juveniles. That rose to 31 percent in 2008, and 50 percent in 2009 and 2010, when scientists successfully raised more than 100,000 red king crabs to their first juvenile stage.

But the key now is helping them get bigger – and smarter – so they eventually could be released back into the wild and have a chance at survival, Stoner said.

“It should be an interesting experiment,” Stoner said. “Ben Daly (a Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska) will take crabs into the Gulf of Alaska on tethers during 2011 to see how they respond to their environment and potential predators. The action will be observed using underwater cameras with live-feed to the nearby shore.”

The project is ambitious, but so are the stakes. Red king crab has been Alaska’s top shellfish fishery and since 1959, U.S. fishers have harvested nearly 2 billion pounds of the delicacy from Alaska waters, worth about $1.6 billion. But the fishery has crashed as fewer crabs are reaching adulthood and the fishery for red king crab is now closed entirely in the Gulf of Alaska.

“Overfishing, climate change, predation by fish, and ocean acidification are all possible explanations,” Stoner said, “though it’s likely a host of factors.”

George Boehlert, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the location of so many scientists from state and federal agencies on site is equally important to the center’s seawater system.

“We have scientists from many different disciplines, as well as agencies, who can provide different experiences and perspectives that make the Hatfield Marine Science Center unlike any research facility in the country,” Boehlert said.