Stalin's last army - hordes of gigantic crabs on their way to invade Europe -
By Julius Strauss in Kirkenes, northern Norway (Filed: 28/02/2004)
Millions of giant Pacific crabs, whose ancestors were brought to Europe by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, are marching south along Norway's coast, devouring everything in their path.
The monster crabs, which can weigh up to 25lb and have a claw-span of more than three feet, are proving so resilient that scientists fear they could end up as far south as Gibraltar.
Energised by a mysterious population explosion a decade ago, whole armies of the crustaceans - known as the Kamchatka or Red King Crabs - have already advanced about 400 miles along the roof of Europe, overwhelming the ports of northern Norway.
They now number more than 10 million and have reached the Lofoten Islands off north-west Scandinavia, leaving in their wake what one expert described as "an underwater desert".
In a graphic display of the extent of the crab's submarine domination, some photographs of the ocean floor in Kirkenes in northern Norway show a writhing mass of the ugly, spiny animals.
Northern clams and other shellfish, once so numerous that divers could scoop up handfuls, have been all but eliminated.
Lars Petter Oie, a Norwegian diver who lives nearby, has seen the fjord outside his front door taken over by the crabs.
Plunging through a hole in the ice, another diver surfaced within two minutes with a huge specimen. A snap of its claw is enough to remove a man's finger.
Mr Oie said: "I have been to conferences on the crab and one thing the experts agree on is that they have rarely come across a species that is so adaptable.
"It can survive on almost anything: kelp, dead fish, seaweed and fish eggs. It even eats crushed shells to get the calcium it needs for its shell."
The relentless advance of the crabs has led to calls from some Norwegian marine experts for a government-subsidised "blitz" to try to halt their relentless march south.
Andreas Tveteraas, an analyst in Oslo with the international World Wildlife Fund, said that urgent steps needed to be taken.
"This animal has no natural predators and it's an alien species in the Barents Sea. That's why its numbers are exploding.
"Some scientists say it will stay in the north because it likes the temperature but others think it can go as far south as Gibraltar."
For years the Norwegian government has ignored the underwater advance, undecided whether to treat the crabs as a resource or a pest.
The animal's legs are considered a delicacy and fetch top dollar in Japan and America. Even in Oslo, consumers pay around 200 Norwegian kronor (£15) a pound.
Served with bread, butter, lemon and mayonnaise, the taste and texture of the crab meat is comparable with that of the finest lobster.
One leg is enough to provide a grown man with a filling meal.
At present, some Norwegian fishermen have been granted seasonal licences to catch the Kamchatka crab but stiff regulations on the size of the boat used and other criteria mean they are few in number.
Aasmund Bjordal, of the Department of Marine Resources in the western Norwegian town of Bergen, said: "We're between two policies. One is to get rid of the crabs. The other is to manage it as a fishing resource.
"In the meantime, it's already become an important source of income for some fishermen in the north. The problem is that it may be destroying the fishing stock."
Predicting the crab's long-term effect on the marine ecology is difficult. The Barents Sea provides some of the world's richest fishing grounds and a collapse in stock would be a major disaster.
There is some evidence that the crabs, which often live at great depths, have been eating the eggs of the caplin, a small fish that is a main source of food for cod.
In its native Pacific it faces much sterner competition but has nevertheless edged out other bottom-feeders to reach northern Japan and Vancouver Island.
Transporting the monster crabs to the Barents Sea was originally part of a Stalinist era scheme to provide food for the populations in the north-western Soviet Union.
In the 1990s, for reasons nobody quite understands, the population exploded.
In recognition of the growing threat to the local ecology, Norwegian authorities finally lifted on Jan 1 some of the restrictions on crabbing along part of the shoreline.
As for the fishermen themselves, they are as deeply divided as the government.
Many Norwegian fishermen hate the crabs, blaming them for falling fish stocks and complaining that they get tangled in their nets. But for others, they have brought unprecedented wealth. At the Rallarn, a pub near the harbour, a fierce debate raged this week. Some favour annihilating the crabs, an almost impossible task, while others are tickled pink at the chance to gorge for free on a rare delicacy they find almost at the bottom of their gardens.
Elvis Jenssen, 41, said: "The bloody things hoover up everything off the bottom of the sea and all the fish are disappearing. They came over from Russia and now they're taking over."
But Glenn, a 30-year-old car mechanic, replied: "It's true the seabed now looks like the Sahara but they certainly taste good."
This was just too funny to pass up posting.