Soviet botanist Ivan Machurin’s immortal phrase “We cannot wait for favors from nature. To take them from it — that is our task” could be the all-encompassing slogan by which Russia’s resource-driven economy now lives.
Even though the early 20th-century scientist was primarily referring to creating plant hybrids, his philosophy underpinned many of the Soviet Union’s ambitious experiments with nature — from reversing river flows to the Kamchatka crabs that were transplanted to the Barents Sea in the 1960s in an effort to increase the productivity of the northern sea.
Half a century later, the spiny giants are the region’s most lucrative catch — but this experiment with biodiversity has had a string of economic, environmental and social effects on the fishing communities of the Barents Sea.
No Accidental Tourist
With a life span of up to 30 years and growing up to 2 meters across, the Kamchatka crab — also called the red king crab — is a hardy native of the North Pacific, taking its name from the peninsula where Russians first encountered it.
Between 1961 and 1969, scientists seeking to boost the commercial productivity of Russia’s Arctic Sea released 13,000 of the creatures and 1.6 million larvae into Kolafjord in the east Barents Sea — thousands of miles from their Pacific home.
The results of the experiment were at first disappointing. Although Norwegian fishermen soon began to find Kamchatka crabs in their nets with increasing regularity — the crabs appear to have marched toward Norway against the warm Gulf Stream current soon after being introduced — at first their presence in Soviet waters was negligible.
But the crustaceans were only biding their time.