Pribilof scientists work to bring back decimated blue king crab population

The restrictions put in place to protect blue king crab also make it difficult to do research on the species. (Photo by Celeste Leroux/Alaska Sea Grant)
The restrictions put in place to protect blue king crab also make it difficult to do research on the species. (Photo by Celeste Leroux/Alaska Sea Grant)

The last commercial harvest of Pribilof Island blue king crab was in 1999. Extremely low population numbers have kept that fishery closed.

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“They’re almost like unicorns in the trawl survey now,” Lauren Divine said. Divine is the co-director of St. Paul’s Environmental Conservation Office. “There are very, very, very few being found. When you find one it’s kind of unreal. It’s kind of surreal.”

As the blue king crab population goes down, fishermen on St. Paul Island face more restrictions to reduce bycatch. When those crab are caught accidentally, that can lower fishing quotas even more. Those precautions are intended to protect crab and help the species rebound.

One idea Divine thinks could help the species recover is outstocking. That’s when female crab are plucked from the wild, flown to a hatchery where their eggs are raised until the young crab are dime-sized, and then they’re all returned to the ocean.

That method is being tested in Kodiak on red king crab and Divine said they’re seeing positive results.

“That gives us a lot of hope to say if it worked with red king crab, we could do this outstocking,” Divine said. “We could put these babies in the wild somewhere where we could go back and check. We could actually track survival, see them molt, and see the success of these crabs surviving.”

But the restrictions in place to protect the crab also make it difficult to do research on the species. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game would have to issue a permit to allow Divine to remove crab from the water. That permitting process takes a long time, but Divine thinks it’s time to try.

“In the 16 years that we’ve been looking at this species and have been trying to rebuild this species, nothing else has worked,” Divine said. “There is nothing to suggest that simply not touching them is going to do anything for the population in the future.”

At this point, Divine said scientists have exhausted other ideas. There’s only so much you can take from one population and apply to another.

Divine dreams of the day St. Paul’s fishermen will be able to fish without being limited by blue king crab bycatch.