Barents Sea teems with 'Stalin's crabs'

Legions of giant crabs clawing their way along the bottom of the Barents Sea are proving a godsend to the few fishermen authorised to catch the lucrative crustacean, but some fear the crabs are threatening the sea’s fragile ecosystem.

The Kamchatka crab, also known as red-king crab or Alaskan crab, was introduced into the Barents by the Soviets in the 1960s—about 30 years after a first, failed attempt by Stalin—in a bid to bolster Russia’s food supplies.

Now, the species is spreading like wildfire along the northern coasts of Russia and Norway and will continue to spread as far as Gibraltar, the southern tip of the European continent, predicted Yuri Illarionovich Orlov, the Russian biologist who first implanted the animal in the Barents Sea.

“But that will take 150 years,” he said.

The crabs weigh up to 12kg and measure up to 2m from pincer to pincer. While they remain far from Europe’s tourist beaches for the time being, their impact on the environment is already a major cause for concern in the Arctic.

The crabs eat anything they can find on the seabed—fish eggs, snails, clams, shellfish and dead fish.

And to make matters worse, they reproduce at an exceptionally fast rate. A female crab can lay 500 000 eggs at a time, of which 1% or 2% will become crabs.

“We can’t use our nets or our deep lines anymore because the crabs claw them and ruin them,” complains Arnulf Bertheussen, a fisherman in the Norwegian Arctic village of Honningsvaag.

“They devour everything in their path.
They are creating a desert: the seabeds, they’re the Sahara,” Bertheussen laments aboard his trawler, Goldfish.

Yet the species is protected by diplomatic accords between Norway and Russia, with a bilateral fishing commission deciding how to manage the stocks. For this year, Norway has been granted a quota of 300 000 crabs in its waters and Russia three million.

For the 259 Norwegian fishermen authorised to catch them, crab fishing represents up to 60% of their earnings. Sold for 65 kroner ($10) a kilogram on the pier, the meaty claws are then resold in shops for about 500 kroner ($82) a kilogram.

But, says Bertheussen, who is not authorised to catch crabs, what is the point of fishing crab for two months if it means that for the remaining 10 months of the year there will be no fish?

In the town of Jarfjordbotn, on the shores of a fjord teeming with giant crabs, Lars Petter Oeie runs a business offering tourists crab safaris.

Even though he has made a killing on his business idea, he has mixed feelings about the crustacean.

“This crab isn’t from here. We don’t know its effects on nature. But the main problem is for the fishermen, for whom it does more damage than good,” he says.

“If you aren’t authorised to catch crabs and you capture a few in your nets, you repair the damage. If you catch 2 000 crabs that you have to throw back, you give up [fishing],” he explains.

Many fishermen have called for higher and more broadly distributed quotas. While the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association was initially in favour of eliminating the crabs entirely, it has also come around to the idea of better quotas.

“We would have preferred that it had never come to Norwegian waters, but now that it’s here it’s impossible to get rid of. The best thing is therefore to raise the quotas to limit its spread,” Reidar Nilsen, the head of association, told Agence France-Presse.

West of the north cape on Norway’s northern tip, the Scandinavian country is allowed to manage its crab population itself. So in a bid to stop the advance of the “steamroller crab”, Oslo has issued a ban on fishermen throwing back the animals.

“If you pick up a crab east of the north cape without a quota, you get fined. But if you row for a minute, and you pick up a crab west of the north cape and you want to throw it back, you also get a fine,” Lars Petter Oeie says, summing up the irony of the situation.—Sapa-AFP

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