In a few weeks, thousands of baby red king crabs, each no larger than half a pinky fingernail, will make their way into the waters off of Kodiak Island, months after their births in the carefully regulated tanks of a local laboratory.
The 13,000 red king crabs are a test case for the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program . Can hatchery-raised king crabs, scientists wonder, be reintroduced to the environment where they've struggled over the last three decades?
While the reintroduction might lead some to believe this is the start of restoring the once-plentiful Kodiak king crab fishery, Bob Foy, laboratory director for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center  Kodiak laboratory, said the project is a long way from claiming that.
“This is just an experiment, not a stocking effort,” Foy said from Kodiak on Monday.
Divers to check crabs' growth
Instead, the thousands of tiny king crabs will be part of a density study, with specific numbers of juvenile crabs placed in carefully chosen locations, one square meter at a time, in the waters off of the Kodiak Island community of Old Harbor. Then, every day until December, divers will descend, hoping to gain a better understanding of how the crabs are faring. Are they growing? Do certain habitats support survival better than others? That information could drive a possible stocking effort in the region.
The project is “cutting edge” for Alaska, Foy said. Alaska crabs have been raised for years for experimental purposes, though they have never been raised to be released into the wild. While hatcheries on the East Coast have participated in stocking efforts with blue crabs, Alaska has never put hatchery-born king crabs in the ocean. But salmon fisheries across Alaska have found success in enhancing stocks, a success the scientists hope to duplicate with the highly valued crustaceans.
Kodiak would love to revitalize the king crab fishery, according to  Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Biologist Mark Stichert. Each year the community of 6,000 celebrates with a yearly Crab Festival . The irony? There's been no commercial harvest of crab since 1982, and none of the king crab served at the festival comes from the Gulf of Alaska.
Tiny subsistence catch
Stichert said there is a subsistence fishery for king crab on the island, but the catch is small. Last year, 2,120 subsistence permits netted only 218 king crabs. Based on trawl studies, the population of king crabs in the Gulf has remained steady, but at historically low levels.
“Certainly, there are still crab here, but not to levels (where) we would allow a commercial fishery to operate,” Stichert said.
Crab used to be king on the island, starting in the 1940s and '50s, and peaking in the '60s and '70s. In 1966, Kodiak fishermen landed 94.4 million pounds of crab, but in the years that followed, the catches sharply declined.
According to Stichert, a variety of reasons contributed to the crash -- over-harvest; changing ocean conditions, including changes to currents and warming temperatures; and increased predation from groundfish.
Much of the infrastructure used to process king crab remains in place on the island, though much of it was been altered to allow the processing of groundfish, the leading commercial fishery on Kodiak.
But there's still interest in getting king crab back to the island.
Foy noted that while that's the hope, the hatchery crabs due to be released in the upcoming weeks will only be the start of bringing the king of crustaceans back to Kodiak. And it's not a process that happens overnight.
“We're years from (rehabilitating the fishery),” Foy said. “This is a test with hopes that it will come back.”
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com