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Crabs in the Lab: The Science Behind Alaska's Deadliest Catch

Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel’s reality TV show focused on crab fisheries in Alaska, recently caught Alaska Fisheries Science Center scientists when producers of the show called upon one Alaska Fisheries Science Center researcher for his expertise. Time Bandit crewmember Mike Fourtner stopped by the center's main campus in Seattle to talk to NOAA Fisheries Biologist Bob McConnaughey about some crab fishery-related topics. A portion of the interview will be featured on the July 23 episode of the Deadliest Catch pre-show, called The Bait.

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center has laboratories in Kodiak, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington, dedicated to a wide range of research on various fish, crab, and shellfish species native to Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea waters. 

Alaska’s federally-managed fisheries are known worldwide as being among the most sustainable and valuable fisheries on the planet—worth billions to the U.S. economy and an important component of Alaska’s seafood industry, the largest private sector employer in the State. In fact, about 60-percent of all seafood caught in U.S. waters comes from Alaska.

This is the science behind the success of the Alaska crab fishery—what crab fishers like those on Deadliest Catch depend upon for sustainable catch of crab year after year.

Behind the Scenes at the Kodiak Crab Lab

Located on Near Island in Kodiak, Alaska—the third largest fishing port in the nation— the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center is often referred to as the “top crab lab in the country” and is the primary facility for the center's shellfish assessment program. Visitors to the 25,000 square foot complex are warmly greeted by scientists there—but don’t let that fool you. Scientists at the Kodiak lab are probably the crabbiest in all of NOAA—and they like it that way!

The facility includes a public interpretive center, a running seawater laboratory, conventional laboratories, a freestanding aquarium, a touch tank, a research library, office space, and conference rooms. Bringing research to the community is an important part of managing fisheries resources.

The crab fishery in Alaska is jointly managed by NOAA Fisheries and the State of Alaska, with NOAA scientists surveying the crab stocks and conducting stock assessments. Scientists also study topics such as what impact ocean acidification might have on various species of crab, competition between red and blue king crab, and how to reduce snow crab handling mortality.

“The science behind the harvest of crab in the Bering Sea starts with years of data and effort to increase the certainty of population estimates," said Kodiak Laboratory Director Robert Foy, "as well as to better understand crab biology and ecology.” 

A significant focus of shellfish assessment scientists at the Kodiak Laboratory is the annual surveys of the distribution and abundance of various commercially important crab and groundfish resources in the eastern Bering Sea. The resulting annual Bering Sea Crab Survey Report helps the fishing industry locate productive fishing grounds and crab fisheries managers regulate and improve viability of future stocks.

In addition, a variety of other major research activities take place in the field and in the laboratory. Scientists in the seawater laboratory study various species of crab, currently golden king crab, and fish to better understand their life history and reproduction. A collaborative crab enhancement project is underway to determine whether red and blue king crab larvae can be raised under hatchery conditions.

Pathogens and Parasites in Crabs 

Meanwhile, the Fisheries Resources Pathobiology Team at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center headquarters in Seattle investigate the biology and life history of disease pathogens and parasites that can afflict important crab species.

One focus of concern researchers is the blood parasite, Hematodinium, which afflicts Tanner and snow crabs.The effect of this parasite on crabs is commonly known as Bitter Crab Syndrome, due to the very bitter taste of infected crabs when their meat is cooked and eaten. Although harmless to humans, evidence suggests that Hematodinium is 100 percent fatal for crabs infected with this parasite.

The pathobiology team is also investigating the potential impacts of parasitism and disease on other important marine life, including walleye pollock, as well as the development and implementation of molecular tools to monitor crab physiological health.

Catch NOAA Fisheries Crab Scientists on T.V. 

Don't forget to tune into The  Bait—pre-show to Deadliest Catch—on July 23, 2013 to catch the interview with NOAA Fisheries scientist Bob McConnaughey.

We hope the next time you sit down to watch an episode of Deadliest Catch, maybe with a plate of  U.S.-caught, sustainably managed wild crab (perhaps from Alaska), you’ll think of all the NOAA science behind the Alaska crab fishery.

See original story at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/stories/2013/07/7_17_13_crabs_in_the_lab.html

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