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Released June 23, 2004

GCRL CRAB NURSERY POSTS FIRST FOR GULF

OCEAN SPRINGS -- In a first for the Gulf of Mexico region, scientists at The University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory have reared blue crabs in captivity from eggs to baby crabs.

The successful production of the baby crabs is a step toward developing commercial aquaculture operations that can raise juvenile crabs in ponds for the soft-shell crab market, noted Harriet Perry, director of the Southern Miss Center for Fisheries Research and Development at the laboratory.

At 20 days old, the GCRL crabs entered a second larval stage termed a "megalopa." About the size of a capital letter in newspaper print, they look more like little lobsters than crabs and are white, not blue.

"The next time they molt is when they finally begin to look like a crab," Perry said

The GCRL project is part of a blue-crab consortium. Maryland consortium members successfully reared blue crabs from eggs to the second larval stage last year. While they are looking to rebuild a declining crab fishery in the Chesapeake Bay using hatchery-reared blue crabs, the GCRL team is interested in developing the technology for production of soft-shell crabs in ponds.

The soft-shell crab is harvested after the crab has molted and filled out its new shell but before that shell begins to harden.

"The soft crab is the money crab," Perry said. "Our crab fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is in stable condition, but hard crabs may bring $6 a dozen while soft crabs can go for $16 to $36 a dozen. Crabbers sell all the soft-shell crabs they can catch to our regional markets. Developing blue crabs as a new species for aquaculture would open the possibility of exporting Gulf of Mexico soft crabs."

Perry pioneered recirculating seawater systems more than two decades ago to hold wild-caught crabs until the crabs shed and can be harvested as the higher-priced soft crab.

"Our interest in hatchery-produced individuals is to develop technologies for the efficient year-round production of pre-molt and soft-shell crabs," she said.

Perry's GCRL team has taken a first step toward establishing a steady supply of seed stock-- the juvenile crabs that can be used to grow crabs to a marketable size--initially in the aquaculture experiments and, once the technology is in place, in commercial operations.

"Our goal is to get the megalopae to an early crab stage, something a little larger than a dime," she said. "Growing the crabs to that juvenile stage will be the biggest challenge because they are so cannibalistic."

She said another element of the project is to supply hatchery-reared juvenile crabs for research on parasite and disease studies. Drs. Robin Overstreet and Jeffrey Lotz, Southern Miss professors of coastal sciences at the GCRL, will be looking at a parasitic barnacle and a parasite that, while not harmful to humans, affects the crab's blood and the animal's survival.

The GCRL is part of the university's College of Science and Technology.

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June 23, 2004 4:27 PM

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