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Snow crab – a valuable new fishery resource in the Barents Sea?

The stock of Snow crabs in the Barents Sea has potential to support a fishery comparable in value to the famous cod fishery. Since the first Snow crabs were discovered in the Eastern Barents Sea in the mid 1990s the stock has grown rapidly and is now ready for commercial exploitation. Model simulations indicate potential annual catches to reach the 25.000-75.000 tons range within the next 10 years—likely even more if the stock continues to grow.

Yet another new crab species is moving into the Barents Sea. The Snow crab is a big crab—not quite like the King crab that was introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s, but nevertheless able to reach a weight of 1.5 kg and a ‘wing-spread’ of half a meter. It was first recorded in 1996 on the Goose Bank in the eastern Barents Sea. Since then it has spread throughout most of the Russian zone and is now on its way westward into the Norwegian and Svalbard zones. Even if the individual size of the Snow crab is smaller than that of the King crab, there is every indication that the stock of Snow crabs will become much larger than that of the King crab. In the near future the Snow crab is expected to become a significant part of the bottom fauna in the Barents Sea.

New resource?
The Snow crab is an important shellfish resource in Canada and Alaska. The fishery amounts to more than 100,000 tons a year. What is the catch potential in the Barents Sea?

We are not at this point in a position to carry out a full quantitative stock assessment like the ones provided for the other major fishery resources in the Barents Sea. The data is still too sparse. However, alternative models including information from other fisheries (e.g. the Canadian) might allow us to look at different scenarios of possible stock developments and provide estimates of potential future catch.

If we assume that the Snow crab has habitat requirements in the Barents Sea similar to those it has in the Western Atlantic, the Barents Sea catch potential might be between 50,000 and 170,000 tons annually. At a price of around US$6.00 a kilogram we are looking at firsthand values of 0.3–1 billion USD—of the same order as the value of the entire Norwegian landings of cod.

It will take some time for the stock to support catches that big. However, the model simulations suggest that catches could reach 25,000-75,000 tons within the next 10 years if an optimal harvest strategy is applied.

The challenge
The uncertainties in the estimation of future catch potential are large. Everything does, however, point to Snow crabs becoming a major fishery resource in the Barents Sea. The fishery has already started: in 2013 three Norwegian vessels and one Spanish were fishing in the central Barents Sea. Catch-rates were good. Russian vessels are expected to start fishing in 2014.

The management of the Snow crab stock is the most urgent challenge. Should it be considered a resource and be managed for maximum yield, or is it an unwanted non-native species that should be kept at the lowest possible level? So far, no management plans have been developed. However, Russian and Norwegian authorities have announced that they expect to have this in order by the end of 2014.

A permanent resident
Like the King crab, introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s, the Snow crab is here to stay. It cannot be eradicated by decree—biology is such that the last crab simply could not be caught even if considerable effort was put into achieving just that. 

A large stock of Snow crabs could have a significant influence on the bottom communities where they forage – whether “good” or “bad” from the human point of view is more difficult to predict. We know little about the ecosystem effects and whether it would be possible to mitigate potential unwanted effects.

The Snow crab is here and we need to make the best of it.