During the heyday of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in the mid 1980s, I was working in Juneau as a Fisheries Technician and was given the opportunity to travel to Dutch Harbor to assist on a pilot tagging project being conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Commercial Fisheries Division, research section based in Kodiak. They needed more trained dockside samplers to attempt tag recovery of PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags implanted in red king crab to test the feasibility of a full scale, field-level tagging project. The purpose of this project was to develop a tag not visually detectable externally. This was to address a problem with crab spaghetti tags being either lost during the molt or removed from by crew members to adorn their hats instead of returned to ADF&G for the paltry tag reward. Crab grow through a process called molting wherein they shed their old shell and grow a new one. Tags are used by biologists to study crab growth, movement, and harvest rate to provide for sustainable management.
As the crab boats pulled up to the UNISEA processing plant unloading dock, we dockside samplers went aboard, interviewed the skipper in the wheelhouse, and then sampled totes of red king crabs as they were offloaded. Stepping onto the vessel bridge and into the wheelhouse you entered a tiny fiefdom, the character of each determined by the captain, and generally reflected in the demeanor of the crew and quality of the red king crab catch. The unmistakable cream of the crop were the thick-accented, close-cropped, soft-spoken Norwegian skippers with their crew gliding efficiently in the background, responding efficiently to the Captain’s quiet commands. With their immaculate bridges and tidy decks, these operations were a joy to behold, and invariably yielded vigorous, lively crab with little dead loss. Below this gold standard there were bleary-eyed, leering captains with sullen, beer-swilling crew presiding over debris-strewn bridges with holds full of sluggish crabs and every level imaginable between. It was truly the ‘Wild West’ of the red king crab fishery; fortunes were being made while lives were lost and bodies ruined.
The research staff outside the processing plant inserted PIT tags into the tail of crabs and salted totes with the tagged crabs. Inside the processing plant, we samplers scanned crab with a PIT tag detector as we measured their carapace length and examined them for shell age. Only a few of us samplers had a good detection rate, and the effort was determined a failure and the method scrapped. Crab biologists worldwide are still struggling to develop a decent method to age crabs. Current crab growth research has several different avenues of investigation: the accumulated level of lipofuscin, a pigment in the crab’s eyestalk; distinguishing growth rings by sectioning hard parts in the crab’s stomach that are retained through the molt; and the idea of implanting crabs with ‘pearl’ seed which develop growth rings.
I returned to Dutch Harbor about 5 years ago, passing through enroute to a research cruise, and found it much changed, probably for the better. The ‘Wild West’ mentality had been replaced by an orderly and efficient company town.
Here is a decadent and fun recipe I like to use for leftover red king crab meat. Use it to wow your dinner party with fairly minimal effort!
Seafood a la king
Medium sauce pan
10 oz cooked red king crab meat
10 oz cooked northern salad shrimp
1 box puff pastry shells
4 T butter
4 T all-purpose flour
2 c milk
½ t pepper
½ t salt
1/8 t nutmeg
1 c frozen peas
½ a red pepper, chopped
1 T pimento
1 medium onion, chopped
4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Preheat oven to 400° F. Put puff pastry shells on cookie sheet and bake for 15 min.
Pull crab and shrimp meat from refrigerator, allow to come to room temperature.
Melt butter, add chopped onions and red pepper and sauté until onion is translucent. Slowly whisk in flour until mixed. Add milk and heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Season to taste with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne, remembering that the cooked crab is often somewhat salty. Add pimentos, capers, and Worcestershire sauce.
Fold in peas, cook until warmed.
Fold in room temperature crab and shrimp.
Spoon mixture over puff pastry shells and serve hot.