A new study that found releasing Alaska red king crab as early as possible after they are reared in a hatchery may improve young crab survival and save operational costs has crab harvesters hopeful.

The study, conducted by scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, showed the best time to release hatchery-reared red king crab is right after they transition from free-swimming planktonic larvae to bottom-dwelling juveniles.

"Red king crab is likely a good candidate for stock enhancement," the scientists said in their report.

US federal fisheries agency NOAA, universities, state and tribal governments and others are also examining the feasibility of a red king crab hatchery program through the Alaska King Crabs Research, Rehabilitation, and Biology (AKCRRAB) program.

“The next step to effective stock enhancement is developing strategies that maximize post-release survival,” said Chris Long, lead author and research fishery biologist at the agency's Kodiak Laboratory.

"It's really exciting," Jamie Goen, executive director for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, told IntraFish of the hatchery work. "AKCRRAB and all of its partners has done the research and proof of concept that crab enhancement is possible. Now it's time to test incrementally scaling it up to see if it could help struggling red king crab populations."

While the latest hatchery study largely focused on the Kodiak crab stock that crashed in the late 1970s, Goen said it could be applied to other fisheries where stocks have dropped, including Bristol Bay.

"This work has the potential to help stocks like Bristol Bay red king crab get over a recruitment bottleneck it has experienced for the last 10 years or so," she said. "In other words, it could increase the survivability of juvenile crab to grow to adults that could be harvested."

The crab enhancement could even help early life stages of crab deal with ocean acidification, which has been linked to decreased growth and mortality.

"There's more to learn but the possibilities are incredibly promising at a time when the crab fishing industry, communities, and Alaskans could use some good news," said Goen.

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