As Non-Native King Crabs Invade Northern Europe, Recreational Divers Take Matters into Their Own Hands

by Owen James Burke

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Thomas Richardsen Hansen holds up an invasive red king crab which he found beneath the ice in Berlevåg, Finnmark, Norway. King crab pincers are strong enough to bend titanium and could easily snip off a thumb. Photo: Stig Brondbo

The red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) is only native to the Bering Sea, the Japan Sea and the northern Pacific waters between them, but in 1961, a group of Soviet scientists brought 7 specimens–yes, just SEVEN–to the Barents Sea in an attempt to stimulate the Soviet fishery. Each mating season, a female may give birth to some 10,000 surviving offspring. By the early 2000s, the population had grown so much that it could sustain a commercially viable fishery, and today there are an estimated 20 million king crab in this small pocket of Northern European ocean, and there’s nothing to stop them from reaching Southern Europe.

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Endemic to nearby waters (see in yellow above), red king crabs are all too fit for the waters of Northern Europe (red). Graphic via GRID

Some fishermen welcome the crabs, which, though invasive, prove a lucrative catch, selling at over $30 per pound in the US, and much more elsewhere. But many marine biologists and other fishermen worry that the proliferation of the species could result in an environmental catastrophe. The World Wildlife Fund is especially worried, citing that since 1995, the species’ presence in the Barents Sea has increased at least sixfold, arguing that any stimulation they’ve provided within the fishing industry will be far outweighed by the disastrous effects in the long run.

 

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Cold water is not the only peril when hunting king crabs by hand; stay away from those claws. Photos: Sidetracked/Dan Burton ABIPP

Basically, as the crabs crawl their way down Norway’s coast by the millions, they carry the same threat many invasive species present: they’re too fit for their introduced environment. Like the lionfish in the Caribbean and the Asian shore crab along the northeastern coast of the United States, the red king crab acts like a seafloor vacuum, consuming anything in its path. This is of particular concern when you consider that Norway’s Røst Island is the site of the largest cold water coral reef known to science.

Above: A Norwegian deepwater coral reef.  the world’s northernmost coral reef. Photo: Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment

Another fear is that the crabs could head as far south as Spain and Portugal, with the potential to not only obliterate those nations’ fishing industries (one of the few remaining financial backbones of the two economically stifled EU states) but native habitat and noncommercial species alike. Already, Norwegian gillnet and longline fishermen are finding that king crabs are not only becoming more frequent bycatch, but they’re tangling in and damaging nets and lines, and feeding on the fish the fishermen intended to catch.

So what are proactive measures are Norwegians taking? Diving–beneath ice–for the colossal crustaceans and welcoming them to the dinner table with delight.

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The objective is to surface with one in each hand – with fingers intact. via Visit Norway

In recent years, the presence of the invasive species has even given birth to a tourism industry, and diving lodges like Arctic Adventure Resort are offering diving packages which include king crab hunts.

We reached out to a few Norwegian crabbers including photographer, diver and crabber Stig Brondbo. What we learned from the brief Q&A is that Norwegian crabbers are characteristically laconic in respect to this chilly endeavor.

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Above: Diver/photographer Stig Brondbo. Photo: Courtesy of Brondbo foto

Brondbo says he has done more than 1000 dives, all, he adds, without major incident. And while he was reluctant to express a sense of danger in pursuing king crabs, it should be noted that apart from the sub-freezing temps, the pincers worn by these gargantuan crustaceans are strong enough to bend titanium and would have little difficulty tearing off your thumb. By stuffing himself into a drysuit, Stig can stay down for 30 to 60 minutes before his lips turn blue and he can’t feel his hands. He only dives as deep as 15 meters, but notes that the crabs range far down hundreds of meters – putting them off limits to human divers. “If you have the proper training with the proper equipment, diving for the crabs is not dangerous,” he says. “But without a drysuit, you do not want to start hunting crabs.”

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Photos: Sidetracked/Dan Burton ABIPP

So, on your next dive trip to Norway – or wherever you may find yourself in the Barents Sea, help the fishes (and local fishery) out by plucking a crab or (preferably) two from beneath the ice. It’s a contribution to the environment that your tastebuds and stomach are unlikely to regret. If you have no idea what you’re doing, or are experiencing some trepidation about entering icy waters without a local guide (as I certainly would) contact Arctic Adventure Resort to book a “king crab safari.” Just watch your fingers. 

Chef Gordon Ramsay went ice diving for crabs on his TV show “The F Word”:

Read a firsthand account written by British journalist Tarquin Cooper at Sidetracked.

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