Reign of crab focus of exhibit, presentations

The glimpse at Kodiak’s king crab fishery currently on exhibit at the Pratt Museum has opened the door on a slice of Homer’s history and a glimpse at what the future may hold.

At a related event beginning at 5 p.m. today, Megan Murphy will describe related research in Kachemak Bay. Two Alaska Department of Fish and Game representatives, Elisa Russ and Ken Goldman, will talk about the local non-commercial tanner crab fishery, “what the fisheries management office is seeing and how the data is being interpreted,” said Scott Bartlett, curator of exhibits at the Pratt.

The exhibit, “When Crab Was King: Faces of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery, 1950-1982,” was created by the Kodiak Maritime Museum. It includes contemporary portraits of people associated with the fishery holding old, smaller photographs of themselves, many of them holding crab, that grew out of an oral history project. The oral history connection is made via a cell phone tour that allows visitors to hear recordings of each of the portrait subjects sharing their crabbing stories.

“When the Kodiak Maritime Museum put this together, the Pratt was in touch and working with them and wrote a letter of support for their exhibit for a grant to fund the project,” said Bartlett. “At that point, we started thinking about hosting it, taking that story and localizing it to Kachemak Bay.”

Crabbing in Kachemak Bay didn’t equal that of Kodiak, but a similar story exists “as far as the economic impact, fishermen that were using this as a good part of their income and what happened when that disappeared, and the environmental impacts,” said Bartlett. 

A community conversation held by the Pratt several weeks ago added details of the local experience. Three oral histories and a newly recorded interview with Fred Elvsaas of Seldovia have given another layer to the Kachemak Bay perspective, each of them accessed through a push-button audio connection. Mounted crab — king, Dungeness, tanner and a number of smaller crab — provide a visual connection, as does the commercial crab pot suspended from the ceiling with an 18-inch king crab sitting inside.

“I think really the light at the end of the tunnel is one of the aquarium tanks in the special exhibits gallery where we are hosting a number of juvenile king crab from the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward,” said Bartlett. “They look like adults, but they are an inch across, past the early development stage. … They’re really cute and a hit with all ages.”

The work the hatchery is doing, including a recent release into one of the bays near Kodiak to field test hatchery raised crab in support of wild populations, is cause for optimism, said Bartlett. 

At today’s “Crabby Colloquium: Recent Research and Fishery Management Perspectives, 5-7 p.m., Murphy will describe the research she has incorporated into her biological oceanography degree program. Her study looks at plankton, plants or animals that drift in water and are observed with the help of a microscope.

“The early stages (or larvae) of most marine invertebrates begin their life as drifting plankton, such as crabs, barnacles, clams and more,” said Murphy. 

Building on Kachemak Bay Research Reserve’s interest in how marine invertebrate larvae are transported within and around Kachemak Bay, Murphy said she “grabbed hold of this research idea and brought it with me to graduate school through the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Studies.” By fine-tuning the subject, she seeks to help answer the question whether “Kachemak Bay is the source of our crab populations or are we dependent on an upstream source?” 

From March through October in 2008 and 2009, Murphy conducted weekly plankton tows and vertical profiles of temperature and salinity, focusing on three points between the Spit and McKeon Flats “as I wanted to look at the exchange of plankton and water between the outer and inner Kachemak Bays.” During that time, Murphy observed seven crab species, including Dungeness and tanner, each with a unique release period.

“Also, most crabs appeared to be released in Kachemak Bay as I observed the entire larval development period over a few months,” said Murphy, adding that observations of larvae in their late development stage might suggest they came to Kachemak Bay from another location. “Ultimately, I came away with the conclusion that Kachemak Bay adult crab are likely the main population source for new generations of crab in the bay.”

Murphy’s research has been published in the science journal “Estuaries and Coasts.”

“(This) is more of a scientific standpoint with (Murphy) representing her recent research on larval crab development in Kachemak Bay,” said Bartlett. “It’ll help us all just sort of understand the complex life cycle. … It’s not an easily managed fishery because crab are so unique and there are so many different stages of development.”

“When Crab Was King: Faces of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery 1950-1982” and the additional Kachemak Bay piece are on exhibit at the Pratt Museum through the month of December. December is free-admission month at the Pratt.