Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stalin's "monster crabs" bring jobs to Arctic

Stalin's "monster crabs" bring jobs to Arctic

Reuters is recycling a story that originally seems to have gotten the West's attention in 2004. It seems that over 60 years later, Stalin's dream of cheap Russian crab meat for everyone has come to fruition. The Kamchatka or Red King Crabs are native to the Pacific Ocean, and Josef Stalin originally attempted to introduce them to the Bering Sea area in the 1930s. Only in recent years have they really grown to epic numbers. It would be a great tragedy if they didn't taste great with butter:
"The crabs are generating a lot of money among fishermen, but the introduction of the crabs is a gamble with nature," said Lars Petter Oie, a Norwegian diver who catches crabs and serves them as a delicacy for tourists near the Russian border.

On a "crab safari" in a fjord surrounded by snow-covered hills, one of Oie's colleagues plunges into the chill waters from a boat to hunt the crabs, which can grow up to 150 cms (59 inches) from claw-tip to claw-tip.

As nesting kittiwakes squawk from a nearby cliff, he emerges 15 minutes later from the depths with a haul of eight crabs, a mass of flailing giant red arms.

"Keep your fingers away from the claws," advises Oie. He boils the crabs and serves them with bread and mayonnaise on the edge of the fjord.

About 250 km (155 miles) to the west of Jarfjordbotn, Norway has drawn a line in the sand off its northernmost Artic tip to try to halt the advance of the spiny crabs, introduced to the barren Soviet northwest by dictator Stalin to provide food.

West of the line, Norway is allowing a free-for-all to catch the crabs, which cost up to 600 crowns ($98.73) a kilo in Oslo. East of the line, Russian and Norwegian fishermen have a catch limit of 3.3 million crabs for 2006.

Environmentalists, however, say the crabs are an alien species that may decimate other life in the Barents Sea and that Norway should try to exterminate the invaders rather than manage them like cod or herring stocks.

"There is no reason why Norway should accept an alien species introduced by the Russians with unknown and potentially enormous impacts," said Andreas Tveteraas of the WWF environmental group.

He said fishing should be unlimited everywhere.

The king crabs got a foothold in the Soviet northwest in the 1960s after failed experiments to introduce them dating from the 1930s. For reasons nobody understands, the population rocketed to millions in the 1990s, just after the end of the Cold War.

Estimates place the current number of crabs at more than 10 million, and they are slowly advancing further south, dominating other species and eating all available food, with a subsequent "underwater desert" left behind them.

From a 2004 UK Telegraph article:
In a graphic display of the extent of the crab's submarine domination, some photographs of the ocean floor in Kirkenes in northern Norway show a writhing mass of the ugly, spiny animals.

Northern clams and other shellfish, once so numerous that divers could scoop up handfuls, have been all but eliminated.

Lars Petter Oie, a Norwegian diver who lives nearby, has seen the fjord outside his front door taken over by the crabs.

Plunging through a hole in the ice, another diver surfaced within two minutes with a huge specimen. A snap of its claw is enough to remove a man's finger.

Mr Oie said: "I have been to conferences on the crab and one thing the experts agree on is that they have rarely come across a species that is so adaptable.

"It can survive on almost anything: kelp, dead fish, seaweed and fish eggs. It even eats crushed shells to get the calcium it needs for its shell."

More Sources:
National Geographic: "Giant Crab 'Red Army' Invades Norway"
"The bloody things Hoover [vacuum] everything off the bottom of the sea, and all the fish are disappearing," one resident from the town of Kirkenes told the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph.

Yet others welcome the red king crab, saying its delicious taste and size—the crabs can grow to 22 pounds (10 kilograms) and measure 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) across—make it an extremely lucrative catch. In the United States the crab's meaty legs fetch around $25 per pound.


Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs: Management of the Red King Crab in Norwegian Waters
As to the underwater pictures, it must be pointed out that soft bottom sediment (in contrast to hard bottom) often appear to be areas with almost no visible life. This is due to the fact that most animals at this kind of sediment is in the sediment, not on the top of it. Therefore this type of sea bed may, for a non skilled person, look as a desert. Also, it must be pointed out that the large concentrations of king crab that have been observed in the same areas are due to seasonal hatching - spawning mating - behaviour, and do not reflect a permanent situation during the whole year.

Furthermore, so far, there are no basis in scientific studies for such assertions and speculations. Indeed, prelimiary investigations in an area in Norwegian waters where the king crab have been located for at least 20 years, show no significant effects on the fauna, neither on species abundance nor on species composition. At the same time, however, this is far from sufficient to declare that the king crab has no such negative effects at all. Therefore Norwegian marine scientists are continuously doing studies to reveal any such impacts on the bottom ecosystems in the king crab distribution area in Finnmark. Such studies are however complex and any substantial results in short time can not be expected.


Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Red King Crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus
Adults are large, males 227 mm by 283 mm, reddish brown to purple, covered with spines. They range from Barrow and the Chukchi Sea (MacGinitie, 1955), the Bering Sea to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and along the Aleutian Islands to Japan. They have been recently introduced to the Atlantic coast of Russia and Norway (Kuzmin et al., 1996). Adults prefer sand or mud bottoms, ranging from 3 to 366 m. Their diet consists of sea stars, urchins, clams, barnacles, and other benthic invertebrates. The largest crab in U.S. waters, the king crab are very important commercially; in U.S waters, they are presently taken primarily in the Bering Sea and in Southeast Alaska.

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