Giant Crab 'Red Army' Invades Norway

James Owen
for National Geographic News
March 9, 2004

The Cold War might be over, but a red army of monster crustaceans—marshaled by Soviet-era leaders—is threatening to invade Western Europe, according to environmentalists.

First introduced to the Barents Sea off northern Russia in the 1960s, red king crabs (Paralithodes camtschaticus) are now spilling down western Norway by the millions. Some fear these massive crabs, native to Alaskan seas and the North Pacific, could reach as far south as Spain and Portugal, devouring almost everything in their path.

Some fishing communities in northern Norway say the crab, among the largest in the world, has already had a devastating impact. "The bloody things Hoover [vacuum] everything off the bottom of the sea, and all the fish are disappearing," one resident from the town of Kirkenes told the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph.

Yet others welcome the red king crab, saying its delicious taste and size—the crabs can grow to 22 pounds (10 kilograms) and measure 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) across—make it an extremely lucrative catch. In the United States the crab's meaty legs fetch around $25 per pound.

WWF Norway says the crab's population has increased sixfold since 1995. The environmental group puts the current population at at least 12 million in the Barents Sea alone. The group says that any economic benefits derived from this population explosion may be vastly outweighed by the long-term cost to the marine environment.

For instance, WWF Norway says it is concerned about the impact of the crab—which has no natural enemies in Arctic waters—on the capelin, a fish considered central to the Barents Sea food chain.

"Absolutely nothing has been done by Norwegian authorities to mitigate the impacts of the red king crab," WWF Norway said in a prepared statement.

The crabs were first transported to the Barents Sea in a plan hatched under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The aim was to provide a new food source for people working in the frozen far north.

Handpicked

Initial crab introduction attempts in the Barents Sea were unsuccessful, however. Scientists involved in the project say it wasn't until the 1960s, when only the biggest and strongest crabs were handpicked to make the journey to the U.S.S.R., that the crustacean became established.

Norwegian scientists say the crab, which can live up to 30 years, has broad tastes, eating everything from worms and mollusks to sea urchins and sea stars. They caution that the impact of these aliens on other marine life has yet to be established.

"So far we have no indication of what impacts the crab will have on the native ecosystem and how serious any affects may be," said Jan Sundet, senior scientist at the Institute of Marine Research in Tromso, Norway. He added: "We know very well what the crab eats, and that is almost anything that is available on the bottom."

Continued on Next Page >>


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