Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Crab invasion in the Barents Sea

How delicacy has changed the biosphere and economy of the European Arctic

20 february 2023

Every Kamchatka crab in the Barents Sea is a living monument to an ambitious Soviet experiment, the fruits and consequences of which only become apparent decades after its implementation. The valuable crustacean was introduced into the Arctic waters as part of the idea of establishing a commercial population, and by 2003, some scientists were talking about the crab becoming a 'biological contaminant' threatening irreparable damage to the coastal ecosystem. To prevent the endemics from being destroyed, it was decided to allow the crab to be caught and eaten. From 2020, amateur fishermen can also take part in the noble cause of saving the waters of the Barents Sea from visitors from the Far East.

The great exodus of nutritious crustaceans

Kamchatka crab is full of surprises. It is actually the incompletely tailed crayfish Paralithodes camtschaticus, with an adult male leg span that can reach 1 metre and an average weight of about 2 kg. Its meat is exquisitely tasty and has many health benefits: it contains from 9.2 to 18.9% protein, 100 to 160 mg of sodium per 100 g of muscle tissue, has all the essential and non-essential amino acids, including tryptophan, phenylalanine, lysine and leucine. These substances are directly involved in protein synthesis and metabolism in the human body. Kamchatka crab meat is considered dietary, low in calories and extremely healthy to eat. This is the subject of an article entitled 'Integrated processing of Kamchatka crab,' published in the journal VNIRO Proceedings.

The Soviet government has repeatedly tried to expand the Kamchatka crab habitat to create a sustainable commercial population. This question was first raised in 1932 by Glavryba Head A. M. Golovsky, who proposed relocating the Far Eastern delicacy to the Barents Sea. Over the next few years, several unsuccessful attempts were made—eggs, young fish and live crustaceans died on the train on the way from Vladivostok to Murmansk. The first successful flight could only be made in the 1960s with the help of specially designed tanks on board the aircraft. Since then, some 3,000 individuals have been relocated to Arctic waters. Scientists have been nurturing the Kamchatka crab in the Barents Sea for almost thirty years, and the law has guarded the new inhabitant of the Polar region—it was strictly forbidden to catch it. The formation of a stable population was officially announced by A. M. Sennikov of PINRO on 19 November 1992, 11 months after the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Around the same time, the Kamchatka crab made its way to Norway. In the mid-'0s, local environmentalists began sounding the alarm because 'Stalin's red army' (the nickname given to the crab by journalists of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia) was threatening cod reproduction. In Arctic waters, the Far Eastern visitor has almost no natural enemies and kills more than it can eat. However, by 2010, the Norwegians had already realised the economic benefits of the invasion and started to catch up to 2,000 tons a year. In 2020, the total export value of the now so-called 'Norwegian king crab' was €10 mn.

Fishermen guarding Arctic water biodiversity

According to an order issued by the Federal Agency for Fisheries on 15 November 2022, the quota for the catch of Kamchatka crab in the Barents Sea is 12,690 tons. The Norwegian side has also informed Russia that crustacean stocks are increasing but has not yet announced its catch rates. The countries have also agreed to cooperate scientifically in assessing the crab population. At the moment, the crustacean's impact on the fragile Arctic ecosystem is not fully understood. On the other hand, the economic impact of Kamchatka crab production and exports is also large, as its price has increased almost tenfold on the international market since the 2010s. It can be assumed that the momentum of recent decades will continue, with more and more Kamchatka crab being harvested in the Arctic each year, especially as there are no other ways to effectively regulate its abundance. In this part, the Soviet experiment can be considered a 100% success.

From 2020, amateur fishing for Kamchatka crab in the Barents Sea is also permitted. Special quotas are allocated for fishermen, which are distributed through permits. They can be purchased either independently or through a tour operator. The number of locations where crabs can be fished, types of gear and the size of fish to be caught have been determined. According to RBC, amateur fishermen were able to catch 57 tons of the seafood delicacy in the Murmansk Region in 2021 during the season from 16 August to 31 December. Local authorities see the growth of the industry as a powerful growth driver for the local economy and tourism. However, there are nuances—tourists complain about the high cost of logistics. Getting to the permitted sites on the coast of the Kola Peninsula and chartering a boat with a crew is not cheap. However, a number of tour operators are offering more cost-effective options next season. In 2023, the active season will start on 1 June. It is important to note—poaching in the waters of the Barents Sea is strictly punishable by criminal penalties, so you should check the necessary documents with your host before buying a tour.

Read more Nursery for Krasnoyarsk taimen: a protected area for the wonder fish Bakhta River, the new nature reserve, appeared in Krasnoyarsk Territory


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