It sounds like a 1950s science-fiction movie: an army of giant crabs is on the march from the Russian Arctic down the Norwegian coast. But this is no movie -- it's reality. No one knows how far south these millions of sea creatures will spread. Some say the meter-long crabs could one day snap off swimmers' toes as far south as Portugal. Others say that's nonsense. Norwegian society is split on how to deal with the issue. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports, the commotion is all thanks to the late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty years after his death in 1953, the shadow of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin continues to haunt many corners of Europe -- often, in the most unexpected ways.
Stalin, in plotting his many megalomaniacal projects, didn't limit himself to transferring human populations. It turns out he also had ideas about how to repopulate the animal kingdom. In this case, the plan was to take thousands of giant red king crabs, also known as Kamchatka crabs, from their home in the North Pacific and drop them half a world away into the Barents Sea near Murmansk, with the hope of creating a new food source for the Arctic waters of European Russia.
The Soviet leader did not live to see his project come to fruition, but his heirs dutifully carried out the transfer in the 1960s. Thousands of the monster crabs, which measure more than a meter across when mature, were loaded onto rail cars for the seven-day journey from Vladivostok to the Kola Peninsula. Others were transported by boat and dumped overboard at their new home.
Unlike Stalin's human exiles, the crabs quickly adapted to their new environment. Apparently bereft of natural predators, they began to breed in greater and greater numbers.
Fast forward 30 years and the Kamchatka critters have spread to the waters of neighboring Norway. What will be the impact on the local environment and what will happen next? Aasmund Bjordal, chief researcher at the state-run Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, spoke to RFE/RL and said, "We don't really know yet. But the main point is that we don't have any other crabs or large crustaceans like lobsters and so forth in our waters in the north. So it has no competitors for food within its own family of animals, so that could be one reason why the crab stock is growing so fast here."
Next to oil drilling, fishing is Norway's largest industry. Some environmentalists fear that the rapidly expanding crab population -- which has doubled in the past five years, according to some estimates, and now numbers about 15 million -- could soon interfere with the natural food chain, potentially edging out key fish species.
Andreas Tveteraas, conservation director at the Norwegian chapter of the WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund), explains.
"The keystone fish species of the Barents Sea, the capelin, has eggs that lie on the bottom of the coastal areas of the sea in the spring, which is the same time that huge flocks of young crabs eat virtually all they can get on the sea bottom. So we fear that the predation from the crabs on the capelin eggs may have profound impacts in the wider ecosystem as the capelin is the main food for, for example, the cod in the Arctic," he said.
That puts the Norwegian government in a bind. Although Norway's cod stocks, for now, represent a far more valuable economic resource than the crabs, that could change in the future. Meat from the so-called Kamchatka crabs is a high-priced delicacy that can retail for $100 per kilo. With each individual crab weighing some 10 kilos, it is easy to see how visions of a "crab-meat bonanza" are pushing some officials to call for viewing the maritime invaders as a precious resource to be managed -- not suppressed.
Bjordal says, "At the moment, there is a discussion in Norway whether this crab should be managed as a valuable resource or if it should be regarded as an alien species that should be kept down and kept as low as possible, as far as the population size."
For now, the Oslo authorities say they are following a prudent resource-management policy, allowing a limited annual catch of the crabs -- although this year, the quota has been doubled from 100,000 to 200,000 animals, in view of the expanding population.
Tveteraas of the WWF believes the government's quota rules will actually promote the massive expansion of the crab stocks. He says he is firmly opposed to the rules.
"The problem with the fishing that is allowed today is that you are only allowed to fish male adult crabs while the females and juveniles are protected. So this is a management that is actually set up to make the population increase. What we want to see is a scientific program to monitor the ecological impacts. But most important, we think that we have to get the population under control, at least until we have knowledge about the impact. So we want open fishing on all stages of the species, females, males and juveniles and, if necessary, we would like the state to invest money in having an intensive fishery to stop the crab from expanding further."
Last December, the Norwegian chapter of the WWF addressed a letter to the United Nations in which it accused Norway of violating key portions of the world body's Convention on Biological Diversity, which Oslo signed in 1992. That convention obligates members to "prevent the introduction of [and to] control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species."
The Norwegian government counters that it did not introduce the giant crab to Norway and cannot eradicate it. It maintains that the current quota policy will stabilize the population.
But Tveteraas says the crabs are set for further exponential growth.
"It takes between six and seven years for a female crab to become mature. So there's a time lag, which means that the explosion we have seen in the last years is caused by a relatively few females that were mature six or seven years ago. Now there are millions of immature females that, as they get mature, will cause an even more explosive growth of the population."
Tveteraas says Norway is playing "Russian roulette" with one of its most important natural resources -- the Barents Sea. He notes the severe economic impact that the introduction of alien species has had in other aquatic environments, notably the zebra mussels' invasion of the United States' and Canada's Great Lakes.
Carried over by ships from Europe in the 1980s, the tiny mussels quickly spread to all corners of the Great Lakes and their tributary river systems, clogging electric-power generation stations, drinking-water treatment plants, industrial facilities, navigation locks, and dam structures throughout much of the eastern half of North America and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Something similar, Tveteraas fears, could happen to Norway.
"There are too many examples around the world of introduced species causing major economic and ecological damage, and we think that there is no point in taking this risk in the Barents Sea. The Barents Sea is already giving huge economic outputs from its fish stocks. So let's not gamble. Let's find out the effects of this crab before we let it explode."
Bjordal, of the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, is less categorical in his assessment. The main thing, he says, is that nobody knows how far the crab population is likely to expand and how far south it will spread. There is simply too little data. Asked for his personal opinion of what to do with the new "Red Army," Bjordal refuses to be drawn out.
"That's a political question, really," he says.
A political question -- like all of Stalin's legacies.