Some researchers want to adopt a model similar to what salmon hatcheries use in an effort to revitalize crab and other shellfish stocks around the state. Researchers are still hammering out the logistics for how shellfish hatcheries could work. State law is limiting the scale of that research. But a senate bill may change that.
Heather McCarty is co-chair of the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology Program, which is working with several organizations to research how shellfish hatcheries could replenish red and blue king crab stocks.
McCarty said the program was started to address the decline of crabs in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.
“It basically went in the Gulf, for example, from a 20 million stock down to nothing because they closed the fishery and they haven’t reopened it,” she said. “So it was a huge part of the economy of Kodiak.”
She said shellfish hatcheries could work much like nonprofit salmon hatcheries and provide commercial, sport and subsistence fishing opportunities.
McCarty said the research program has already helped release red king crab in the Gulf but it has yet to release blue king crab in the Bering Sea.
Near Kodiak, the program has helped release up to around 11,500 crabs at one time. McCarty said the crabs were not expected to negatively affect the wild stock, and that the experiment’s results were positive.
“There is significant survival,” she said. “They track them for several days, then they went back several days later and that kind of thing, so there is some survival. It’s little bit subjective because it’s kind of hard to tell because they’re not in captivity anymore. They just sort of scatter, but some of them do survive.”
McCarty said programs such as these are limited by the current permitting process.
However, Senate Bill 22 would provide regulatory framework that would allow shellfish hatchery programs to produce on a larger scale, and it’s not just crabs researchers are interested in. There are programs related to other shellfish species, such as razor clams and littleneck clams.
Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation Executive Director Julie Decker foresees a promising shellfish enhancement industry, but she notes that SB22 won’t be the catalyst for the industry to take off.
“Well I think initially it won’t have a tremendous impact,” she said. “What it will do is allow the people that had been working on these king crab research projects to start broadening their scale and also it will allow the industry side to start thinking and planning larger.”
Right now, there are only two shellfish hatcheries in the state, and Decker said it could take decades for players to populate the industry. There are still plenty of logistical and economic problems that need to be figured out as well. Salmon hatcheries often catch and sell a portion of the returning run to fund their operations, but figuring out how to tell wild and hatchery shellfish apart could be problematic.
“Let’s say, you’re releasing king crab in a particular bay,” she said. “It’s likely some will move away from the bay and some will stay.”
That’s not the only barrier to a viable shellfish hatchery industry. Jeff Hetrick is the director of the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward.
Hetrick said the program is mainly focused on providing subsistence and personal-use opportunities for razor clams, littleneck clams and other species.
He said more broadly, there is still question about whether shellfish hatcheries are economically viable on any scale.
“To be able to raise the organisms and release them is one thing,” he said. “But you have to be able to find out long-term what the survival rate’s going to be.”
Hetrick said his hatchery has released tens of thousands of crabs at a time, but he wants to release more than a half million, which SB 22 would allow the hatchery to do.
A similar bill failed in the Legislature last year. SB 22 has moved out of the Senate Resources Committee to Senate Finance, but some senators expressed concerns about how hatchery bred shellfish could affect wild stocks.