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Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
King crabs conquer new realms
crabs on quayside
New market, but damaged nets: Crabs are both boon and blessing
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Finnmark, northern Norway

A huge crab brought to Europe nearly 40 years ago is suddenly finding favour in Western markets.

The king crab, an edible species said to taste like a mixture of lobster and prawn, has successfully colonised Europe's coldest waters.

A native of the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia's Far East, it was introduced in the 1960s to a fjord on what was then the Soviet Union's north-west coast.

Now it has migrated westwards to Norwegian waters in the Barents Sea, and is heading south.

The Norwegians found the invader in their nets by chance in the 1980s, but are only now realising its lucrative potential.

Gain and loss

The king crab can grow up to 1.5 metres (five feet) across. Its main Norwegian stronghold, where it now numbers in the hundreds of thousands, is the Varanger fjord, a wide inlet close to the frontier with Russia, and a prime fishing ground for cod and haddock.

fisherman holding crab
A tiddler - but he'll grow
For some, it is proving a mixed blessing, because the fishing fleets often find they haul in more crabs than cod.

The crabs are too young to sell, and the trawler crews are left with damaged nets.

But the rewards can also be great. In the shops of Oslo a king crab, the world's largest edible crab, can fetch 150 ($210).

Japanese emissaries are arriving in the Norwegian capital to buy as many as they can, and plan to fly the best crabs home live.

And an experiment has already begun to farm them, in the hope of finding markets in Europe closer to home.

Juvenile crabs caught by the trawlers are being kept in seabed pens and fed for six months through the summer, when they discard their shells.

Benign newcomer

Before their new shells grow they put on 25% of their body weight, and grow correspondingly in value.

In a striking example of an alien species that appears to be causing little disruption in its new habitat, the king crab seems not to be harming other species.

The regional director of fisheries and aquaculture for Finnmark, Norway's most northerly county, is Runar Hartvigsen.

crabs in tank
The future has claws and eight legs
He says: "This is very good news for us. Research so far shows that the king crab has occupied a niche that no other species uses. So there is plenty of food, but no harm done.

"The only problem is that there are so many of them and they weigh so much that they can break the boats' nets."

Now the crabs have firmly established themselves in the Barents Sea, Norway and Russia are sharing the stocks, as they share most other species.

This year catches have been limited to 37,500 crabs for each country, though next year they will be higher. Norway would like to take more.

Onward march

The crabs themselves, meanwhile, seem for the moment unstoppable. They have already reached Tromso, hundreds of miles west of Finnmark, and are now heading down the Norwegian coast.

Some scientists think they could reach as far south as Bergen within 10 years. But Runar Hartvigsen is doubtful.

"The water south of Bergen is warmer," he says. "The king crab likes to be really cold. So it may halt its advance."

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19 Oct 99 | Europe
Alien species?
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