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AFSC Historical Corner:  Snails, Shrimp, Clams, & Other Invertebrates Research

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
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  - Invertebrates
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Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
snail pot
Snail pot used by the Japanese fishery in the eastern Bering Sea.  Photo from MacIntosh, 1980 (3.8 MB pdf).

Snails in the eastern Bering Sea, 1970s

Fish and crab resources are well known and have long been exploited by many fishing nations; potential resources, like eastern Bering Sea snails, are virtually unknown. Several species of large snails occur in relatively high abundance in Alaskan waters and offer considerable fisheries potential.

Japan has harvested snails in the eastern Bering Sea since the early 1970's (at least 1971) and there is potential for the development of a U.S. domestic fishery as well. Numerous trawl surveys have been conducted in the Gulf of Alaska, but very little attention has been paid to the snail resources of the area.

During the summer and fall of 1975, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) conducted a comprehensive trawl survey over 566,000 km2 (218,600 miles2) of the eastern Bering Sea shelf and upper slope. This survey was designed to identify principal demersal fish and shellfish communities of the eastern Bering Sea which could be affected by development of continental shelf energy sources.

Data on fish and epibenthic invertebrates were gathered from several hundred locations with a modified 400-mesh eastern otter trawl. The resulting data offered significant insight into the population and biological characteristics of numerous species of snails.

Until 1977, the number of vessels involved in the fishery was unknown. In some years, the Fisheries Agency of Japan licensed 21 vessels but it is unlikely that all of these vessels actually took part in the fishery. Patrols of NMFS in the eastern Bering Sea observed ony 14, 5, 0, and 6 vessels fishing snails in the years 1971 through 1974, respectively, and no vessels in 1975 and 1976.

The 1978 season began in May and ended in November. There was a considerable increase over 1977 in both effort and catch, with about 2,200 t of snail meats taken in about 760-vessel days (average 2.9 t/day). Fishing effort peaked in August when nine vessels fished northwest of the Pribilof Islands.

Fishing gear consists of pots fished at intervals on a groundline. Little is known about Japanese fishing techniques, but in 1973 one vessel fished about 6,000 pots on 12 groundlines (500 pots/ground1ine) and took 3 days to pick and re-bait the entire set of gear.

All processing of the snail catch now [1980] occurs on board the catcher vessel. This consists of crushing the shells, briefly cooking the meats, and removing any soft parts and shell fragments. The meats are graded by size and quality and quick frozen in trays. Small snails in the catch may be frozen whole.

Although there has been little progress toward a domestic snail fishery in the Bering Sea, seafood processors have made several recent attempts to initiate fisheries in other parts of Alaska. In Prince William Sound, as in many other areas of the Gulf of Alaska, snails are regularly taken in crab pots despite the large mesh used.

[As of 1980,] the prospects for rapid development of Alaska's snail resources are uncertain. Snail stocks in the Gulf of Alaska are essentially unexploited and eastern Bering Sea stocks may well be underexploited. Domestic fishermen and processors have expressed interest in the Alaskan snail resource, but their future involvement is more uncertain than the future involvement of Japan. The rapidly expanding and highly profitable king and snow crab fisheries are currently dominating domestic fishing activities in the area.

While crab vessels would be well suited to snail pot fishing, most crab fishermen are looking at Gulf of Alaska and eastern Bering Sea bottomfish stocks as an alternate or supplemental activity. Attempts to initiate a snail fishery in the Gulf of Alaska have not been productive to date [1980]. They have been exploratory in nature but show promise as potential off-season operations in the next few years. As in the eastern Bering Sea, the resource and harvesting capacity now exists. Innovative processing and marketing techniques as well as continued increase in the value of the traditional frozen meat product will be necessary conditions for the initiation of a domestic snail fishery.

* From sections of:  MacIntosh, R. A. 1980. The snail resource of the eastern Bering Sea and its fishery. Mar. Fish. Rev. 42(5):15-20. (.pdf, 3.8 MB).

weathervane scallops
Large weathervane scallops (Patinopecten caurinus) on the M/V John R. Manning in the Gulf of Alaska.
NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection photo.  NOAA Photo Library.

Shrimp:  In the early 1920s, opinion varied as to the biology, movement and location of shrimp schools in Alaska. In 1924, preliminary studies were conducted by the Bureau of Fisheries on the potentiality of a shrimp fishery in southeastern Alaska. Regulations at the time prohibited commercial fishing for shrimp in March and April throughout the region. The need was expressed for more efficient shrimp catching apparatus and improved gear for use on rough and rocky sea floors where other trawls could not operate successfully.

Clam resources in Alaska were actively utilized by early 1920s. As a result, some of the more productive beds were quickly being depleted – in Cordova, intense clam digging and canning had taken place since 1916. From 1923-24, an investigation of clam resources and biology was conducted. It showed that in comparison with clams on the Washington coast, Alaska clams were fewer in number and grew significantly slower, requiring about twice the time to reach a marketable size. Alaska clams also less resistant to heavy fishing and slower to return to productivity when depleted. In 1924, regulations were established limiting the take of clams with less than 4.5-inch shells first to 5 percent of the total taken, then to 3% by the end of the year.

Oysters:  In March 1932, as an attempt to establish an additional food source, the Bureau of Fisheries vessel Murre and her crew assisted B. E. Smith, of Ketchikan, in transporting and planting approximately 300,000 seed oysters of the Japanese variety in waters of the southern district of Southeast Alaska.

Other invertebrates: pending additional content.

Additional reading:

  • Hynes, F. W. 1929. Shrimp Fishery of Southeast Alaska (doc. 1052), p. 1-18. In Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1929 with Appendixes. G.P.O. Wash., 823 p. (.pdf, 3.54 MB).
  • Damkaer, D. M. 1999. A Century of Copepods: the U.S. Fisheries Steamer Albatross. Mar. Fish. Rev. 61(4):69-84.
    (.pdf, 6.7 MB).
  • MacIntosh, R. A. 1980. The Snail Resource of the Eastern Bering Sea and its Fishery. Mar. Fish. Rev. 42(5):15-20.
    (.pdf, 3.82 MB).

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