A crab in every pot

Can crab hatcheries save an industry?

By Doug Schneider

Kodiak Island red king crab larvae in the zoea stage, shortly after emerging from eggs at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, part of the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program. Photo courtesy of Celeste Leroux, Alaska Sea Grant.
Kodiak Island red king crab larvae in the zoea stage, shortly after emerging from eggs at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, part of the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program. Photo courtesy of Celeste Leroux, Alaska Sea Grant.

Inside the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery on the south end of the fishing and tourism town of Seward, thousands of recently hatched red and blue king crab are starting to actually look like crab.

Just four weeks earlier, these king crab were embryos within eggs tucked neatly beneath their mothers’ abdominal flap. The mothers — 20 red king crab from Bristol Bay, 20 red king crab from Southeast Alaska waters, and 19 blue king crab from the Bering Sea around St. Matthew Island — had been collected by local fishermen and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and delivered to the hatchery a few months earlier.

The newborn crab have so far grown through the major steps of larval development, collectively called the zoea stage. At the moment, they are well into the next stage, called glaucothoe, when they take on features common to all crab. They brandish tiny claws on their front legs. Large, beady black eyes sit atop their heads. In a few more weeks, these crab will have armored shells and be instantly recognized as Alaska’s biggest crab.

“They start out small,” says biologist Jim Swingle, a crab research biologist with Alaska Sea Grant. “It’s amazing to see them develop.”

For each of the past five years, Swingle and fellow Sea Grant biologist and UAF graduate student Ben Daly have carefully cared for and watched over the adult female king crab and the growth of their numerous offspring.

The efforts are part of a UAF partnership with fishermen and trade associations, coastal communities, and state and federal scientists to figure out how to hatch and raise large numbers of king crab from wild brood stock. The project will also teach scientists more about the ecology and biology of wild crab, and how hatchery crab might fare if they are released.

“Overall, the research is aimed at learning whether raising red and blue king crab in hatcheries is feasible as a means to help dwindling wild king crab stocks recover in places like Kodiak Island and the Pribilof Islands,” says David Christie, director of Alaska Sea Grant.