Sea Briefs is a report on the results of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.
Editor: Melissa Schneider
Masthead photo: Steven C. Zinski/bluecrab.info
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MASGC supports applied, interdisciplinary marine science research, education and outreach efforts to foster the sustainable development and management of the Mississippi and Alabama coasts and nearshore ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico
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There are hundreds of crab species, but only a few are commercially important.
The king crab, snow crab and Dungeness crab are popular in restaurants worldwide. Another crab — one that generates millions of dollars in revenue along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts — is the blue crab.
The states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas brought in a blue crab bounty worth a total of $45.8 million in 2007, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
If there were a way to regulate the molting of blue crabs — which produces freshly molted, soft-shell crab considered a delicacy by many — then seafood consumers could enjoy them year-round, not just in late spring and early summer when they molt naturally. It also could mean hundreds or thousands of new jobs along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
“No one yet has isolated or characterized this MIH receptor for any crustacean, but we think we have isolated a gene that codes for that receptor,” Watson said. “We’re not 100 percent sure yet, but the gene we have cloned has all the characteristics of the MIH receptor. We’re trying to determine for sure if it is.”
The identification and characterization of the MIH receptor would constitute a significant contribution to the field of invertebrate endocrinology.
“That’s the basic science and a key to answering the question of how growth and development are regulated in this group of organisms with so much ecological and economical importance,” Watson said.
The applied science here is intervention by researchers to block the receptor that prevents molting. Conceivably, then the growth of the animals could be controlled, and this could create jobs and stimulate local economies through private aquaculture or farming operations across every state touching the ocean — from Texas to Maryland, Watson said.
“It probably would have to take place in an aquaculture setting because it would be difficult to control in the wild,” Watson said.“Once they molt in the wild they are very vulnerable to predators because their shell is so soft.”
How would it work?
“That’s a goal down the line,” he said. “Right now we think we have the receptor, and we’ve developed a receptor blocker. We’re at a stage where we can test that. If it works, then we’ll worry about delivery.”
That process would be easier, more lucrative and less timeconsuming for the producers of blue crabs than their current arrangement.
“The way soft-shell blue crabs are collected now is very labor intensive, and it’s usually mom-and-pop organizations trying to do it,” Watson said. "They collect the crabs when they are ready to molt and then watch them every couple of hours 24 hours a day to see if the crab is molting. If we can control the molting, things can be timed in a much more manageable way. You could induce the molting and come back a specific period of time later and have soft-shelled crabs."
Watson said watching a crab undergo the molting process is a remarkable sight.
“When you see it, I don’t know how you cannot be impressed,” he said. “It’s astounding that a complete new animal crawls out of that exoskeleton — and it’s much bigger. The new exoskeleton, once hardened, can accommodate additional growth of soft tissues like muscles and internal organs. The process of molting is a sight to behold.”