DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — For decades, the crab piled up in fishing boats like gold coins hauled from a rich and fertile sea.
But the very ocean that nursed these creatures may prove to be this industry's undoing.
New research earlier this year shows that Bristol Bay red king crab -- the supersized monster that has come to symbolize the fortunes of Alaska's crab fleet -- could fall victim to the changing chemistry of the oceans.
Barring a hasty reduction in carbon dioxide emissions -- or evidence that the creatures could acclimate to changing sea conditions -- a team of scientists fears Alaska's $100 million red king crab fishery could crash in decades to come.
That grim possibility also raises alarm about the crab fleet's other major moneymaker, snow crab.
"With red king crab, it's all doom and gloom," said Robert Foy, who oversaw the crab research for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Kodiak, Alaska. "With snow crab, there's so little known we just can't say. But we don't see anything from our experience that's good for any of these crab. Some is just not as bad as others."
For decades, these storied crustaceans have drawn men and women from Seattle and Alaska to the far reaches of the North Pacific. There, adventurers wrestled 800-pound steel cages amid raging seas and aprons of pack ice, hoping to strike it rich on a bounty of flaky meat and accordion legs.
The emerging issues with Alaska's crab underscore the difficulty of trying to comprehend the depth of fallout from ocean acidification. For reasons scientists don't always understand, similar species, even those living side by side, often respond to changing water chemistry in remarkably different ways.
"The real issue here is unpredictability," said Richard Aronson, a Florida-based marine scientist who has tracked king crab in Antarctica. "There are all these unanticipated collateral impacts. The problem is, most of them are nasty surprises."
Certainly the threat to king crab was unexpected.
As humans pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a quarter of it gets absorbed by the seas. That lowers the water's pH and alters the availability of carbonate ions, which crab rely on to build their exoskeletons.
Many crab species appear hardy in the face of souring seas, or at least not quite so frail. Exceedingly corrosive waters actually pump up Maryland blue crab to three times their size and turn them into voracious predators. Sour waters kill Dungeness crab, but far less often than Alaska red king crab.
When Foy and his colleagues exposed baby red king crab to CO2 levels expected by midcentury, the young died more than twice as often as crab raised in normal water. When researchers boosted CO2 to levels expected decades later, red king crab died in far larger numbers.
"The overall survival at the larval and juvenile stage is extremely low," Foy said. "It decreases to a point that is likely to affect the population of the crab."
Such a loss would exact quite a toll.
"You say king crab, and most people associate that with Alaska," said longtime crab-boat captain Kale Garcia, who lives outside Kent. "So, for it to go away, that's a huge part of the identity for Alaska. I think it'd be devastating."
Red king crab is the showboat of the Northwest's billion-dollar fishing industry. It is a television sensation and a marketer's dream, its image emblazoned on bumper stickers, mugs, caps and T-shirts throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
It is even a tourist attraction: Cruise ship passengers stopping in Ketchikan pay $159 for a half-day ride to watch crews haul marine life aboard a 107-foot crab boat that appeared on Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch."
The 54 million pounds of snow crab caught in 2011 brought the fleet $115 million dockside, while 14.8 million pounds of red king crab brought nearly as much -- $92.5 million. And it can fetch $39.99 a pound at Pike Place Market.
Crabbing attracts tough adrenaline junkies who disappear for weeks into the storm-buffeted frontier of the Bering Sea.
"People like that don't plan an exit strategy out of the fishery. There is no exit strategy," Garcia said. "They're like, 'This is what we do. We fish.'"
NOAA researchers are using Bob Foy's research to develop models and a timeline that charts the potential collapse of king crab. But things are changing quickly.
"Bob reared those crabs under conditions that we thought were some time off in the future," said Jeremy Mathis, a NOAA oceanographer. "And what we actually found is that at certain times of the year, the conditions near the bottom in the Bering Sea were actually worse than the conditions that Bob was raising his crabs under."
There's no evidence that souring seas have yet altered wild populations - the most corrosive seas now occur at times when red king crab aren't as susceptible.
Jim Stone, co-owner of the Bering Sea crab boat Arctic Hunter, is trying to remain optimistic.
"We're scared to death," Stone said. "But we've heard a lot of horror stories before."
The research comes with caveats. No laboratory setting can ever properly approximate what happens in nature. Scientists are still conducting genetic tests to see if king crab might have the ability to adapt.
"It's not unreasonable to assume, for example, that they might move, that some form of rapid evolution will occur, that they may become somewhat more robust," said Andre Punt, a University of Washington professor who worked on the research and assesses crab for fishing regulators.
The situation also might be worse than first thought. Souring seas could hit crab at several additional stages of development or attack their food.
Ocean acidification is also not the only marine-world change underway. Warming seas, also caused by carbon emissions, could compound crab's troubles.
"Anytime you're working with an organism at the edge of its threshold and you add another stressor, that's going to be an issue," Foy said. "When you're working in the subarctic environment like we are in the Bering Sea, these animals are always living at the edge of their tolerance in one season or another."
Search for options
No two Alaskan crab species have responded to CO2 exactly the same way. They seem to react differently depending on where they live at certain stages of their lives.
Golden king crab, for example, live extremely deep, below 1,000 feet, where waters already are naturally rich in CO2. That appeared to make them highly tolerant of sea-chemistry changes.
Meanwhile, baby Tanner crab exposed to high CO2 died at a higher rate than normal -- but nowhere near as often as king crab.
With snow crab, scientists have struggled to perform extensive tests. The animals are just too hard to keep alive in the lab.
It's also hard to know how Foy's results will translate to other species elsewhere.
The rising threat from acidification has insiders closely watching the work of a shellfish hatchery in Seward, Alaska, that for years has been learning how to raise baby king crab from scratch. The program started as an experiment to see if baby crab could be transplanted near Kodiak Island, where massive crab populations crashed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Crab are most susceptible to corroding seas as babies, when a mere fraction of young survive even in perfect conditions. In this hatchery, where water can be controlled, survival is up to 500 times higher.
Still, no one expects this operation could ever replace wild king crab. The orders of magnitude required to get enough crab to populate the Bering Sea would be ridiculous.
But perfecting the science could provide options, such as the ability to repopulate a few previously devastated areas.
The idea that crab might be partially grown in a lab instead of the ocean frustrated Mizrain Rodriguez, another Arctic Hunter crewman. But it also saddened him to think that humans could be doing such damage to the sea."Every single animal on this planet lives in balance with its surroundings except us," Rodriguez said. "We see it. We understand it. But we don't want to do anything about it. It seems like we are on this destructive path."