Overfishing erodes supply of king crab
I RECENTLY discovered a documentary-style TV series called "Deadliest Catch." (OK, this is its third season. I'm a little behind.)
This Discovery Channel program follows Bering Sea fishermen through 50-foot waves, iced decks and tragic accidents in their hunt for Alaskan king crabs.
The show is not for me.
I winced to see men dumping live crabs from traps to deck as if these animals were so many chunks of ore.
But if king crab was a mineral, it would be gold.
"When I see crabs in these traps," one fisherman said, "I think money. I'm making money."
On a good run, which averages two weeks at sea, each fisherman can earn as much as $70,000.
"Aren't king crabs arachnids?" Craig said as we watched.
"I think so," I said.
We were wrong. King crabs belong to a huge class of animals called Malacostraca that includes crabs, lobsters and shrimp. All are crustaceans.
Arachnida is another class of animals grouping spiders, daddy longlegs, mites, ticks and scorpions. None are crustaceans.
King crabs are not related to spiders, but their small bodies and long legs sure make them look spidery. The legs of king crabs are at least three times as long as their shell is wide.
The term king crab refers to four species: red, blue, gold and scarlet king crabs. All live on the ocean floor in cold water. The red king crab is the most common of the four and the most commercially important in U.S. and Russian waters.
Reds begin life as fertilized eggs tucked under their mother's tail flap for 11 months. Females annually carry from 50,000 to 400,000 eggs at a time. After hatching, the larvae become plankton, and most end up in the food chain. The ones that survive molt several times and then sink to the ocean floor. Newly settled king crabs are about the size of a dime.
Red king crabs become sexually mature at 4 and 7 years old (a red's life span is 20 to 30 years). At maturity the young ones join older adults in pods that can be tens of miles in diameter. These enormous pods move around. In seasonal migrations the animals walk together from feeding grounds to mating grounds and back.
A crab boat captain's goal is to find one of these pods.
I have an aversion to eating wild animals pulled from their homes and plopped onto high-priced dinner plates, and during the show, I rooted for the crabs. (Don't go in there! It's a trap!)
But a lot of people do eat king crab, and I wondered about sustainability. How many of these creatures can we take from the ocean before they're gone?
In a program called Seafood Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers use science to answer that question. You can see their reasoning and recommendations about all seafood sold in the United States at www.seafoodwatch.org.
About king crabs, Seafood Watch reports that 57 percent sold in the United States are from Russia's Far East, a poorly managed fishery where stocks are in decline.
A better alternative is Alaskan king crab. The fisheries there, however, are not indestructible. Some areas are thriving right now, but others have been declared overfished and closed.
"Deadliest Catch" gives viewers a close look at a dangerous fishery. And far from the show's intention, it also gives me one more marine animal to worry about.