Kosrae's Mangrove Crabs Prove Tasty Export

by Olivier Wortel

KOSRAE, Federated States of Micronesia (The Micronesian Alliance): April 7, 2005 - Over $100,000 and nearly three years in the making, Kosrae's attempt to sell mangrove crabs as a regular state cash export has become a reality.

Earlier this month, some 200 crabs were taken from one of the two large growing ponds at the Mangrove Crab Farming Pilot project, constructed between two rivers and the edge of the Tofol mangrove forest, and shipped off to Guam restaurants and hotels.

The effort is a project proposed and run by the department of land, agriculture and fisheries, championed under former director Nena S. Nena, who in 2004 accepted the post of FSM Secretary of Health.

But some on Kosrae are worried about the impact that increased harvesting of crabs from the island's mangroves might have on future crab populations.

From a marketing standpoint, all sources indicate a ready and willing clientele in Guam, where 50 mangrove crabs shipped from the Tofol pond in February proved to be as sweet and succulent as advertised. Demand for Kosrae mangrove crab meat was quickly established, with various fish market buyers, restaurants and hotels requesting nearly as many as could possibly be sent: reportedly asking for 500 to 1,000 per week.

The prospect of the state earning back its $100,000 investment appears likely.

"People have had doubts and criticisms of the project, but they finally found that there is a good market for them," says Rey Manlapaz, project coordinator of the ambitious crab pond pilot project. "So far it's commanding a really good price. I'm positive that we will be making money by next quarter. These are all real, good, quality crabs, full of meat. Restaurants and some big hotels (in Guam) are gearing up for crab nights."

The crabs themselves are fed twice daily with "trash" fish - discarded tuna that is not considered sashimi grade in Japan and east Asian markets - purchased by the ton from the purse seiner fleets in Pohnpei and shipped to Kosrae.

Although Manlapaz maintains that the ponds can each potentially hold up to 5,000 or more crabs, he says that he would not attempt to fill them to such numbers for fear of cannibalization, the effect on the ponds' water quality, effluents and the spread of disease.

Of the three originally proposed ponds for the pilot project, only two were approved by the Development Review Commission (known today as the Kosrae Island Resource Management Authority - KIRMA) in 2002. For now, only one is in operation.

The project has not been without problems, including the presence of freshwater eels that compete with the crabs for food, the negative impacts on the mangrove forest of excavation and soil buildup around the site, and an as yet undetermined mortality rate for the crabs within the pond.

Most notable was the aborted attempt to find very small crablets in the mangrove forests of Kosrae and raise them in the ponds. Several efforts were made to no avail.

Powac crablets look similar to another species of crab in Kosrae at that stage of their lifecycle and it simply proved too difficult, time-consuming and cost prohibitive to undertake such an endeavor. Talk of breeding within the ponds, initially great, also subsided.

As a result, and in order to meet the great demand in Guam and elsewhere, mangrove crabs of all sizes are now being purchased by the state in order to stock the ponds, fatten and sell.

People who harvest the crabs are paid between $1.75 per pound for smaller crabs, up to $2.00 per pound for larger crabs with a carapace over six inches. The state is then able to sell the crabs for up to $8.00 per pound in Guam. After packaging and shipping costs are taking into account, a two-pound crab (the average) can earn a profit of about $10.00.

One shipment of several hundred crabs can mean thousands of dollars in revenue for the state, particularly noteworthy in the transition to and development of the private sector throughout the FSM.

What is not so certain to some is whether Kosrae's natural Powac crab populations can sustain the current daily harvest rates required to stock the pond until June, when a proposed hatchery is to be built at the FSM Aquaculture Center in Lelu. The hatchery will then provide the crablets necessary to stock the ponds and sell to Guam and other markets.

According to Manlapaz proceeds from the sales of the crabs to will go to fund some of the hatchery costs.

In the meantime, people have been bringing crabs from around the island on a daily basis for more than a month.

A look at the logs maintained by fisheries specialists at the division of marine resources revealed that at least 50 percent of crabs are coming from the forests of Utwe, with most of the remaining crabs coming from both the Lelu and Tafunsak forests.

According to fisheries specialist Maxwell Salik, the single pond in operation currently holds over 1,000 wild crabs and counting. KIRMA, which issues permits for such development projects, placed a limitation of 3,000 crabs per pond as one of its original permitting conditions.

Salik, in response to a query on sustainability, said that any female crabs with eggs that are reharvested from the ponds will be delivered back into the forest, attempting as realistically as possible to return them to the general area from which they came.

Unquestionably, the money flowing into local communities is a direct monetary benefit of the state's crab-buying program. Yet, at least one local fisherman who spoke on the subject, asked at what cost to the local crab populations, which he suggested were already suffering from the increased harvesting.

"The places that the women have been going, where they know there are lots of crabs, they are saying that they are not finding them at those places anymore," he said from his home in Utwe.

Studies conducted from 1998 to 2004 indicate that Kosrae has a natural mangrove crab population of about 30,000 at any given time.

Utwe Mayor Dexter Benjamin also expressed some concern over the sudden increase in harvesting of all sizes of crabs from Utwe's famed mangrove forests.

"Utwe is the most populated in crabs," said Benjamin. "We have the biggest, the happiest and sweetest crabs on the island. But if we keep selling crabs to the pond in Tofol, what will happen?"

(The MacArthur project and USDA Forest Service study verified this, showing that the average crab was more than six and a half inches wide in Utwe, while crabs in the other three municipalities averaged between five and a half and six inches in width.)

For years, crabs with a carapace less than six inches in diameter have been off-limits to legal harvesting.

Benjamin said that he only found out about the program to buy crabs when he saw people in Tofol selling crabs at the pond site. The prospect of continuing at the current pace until June, when the hatchery is slated to open, in the mayor's opinion, is not necessarily a pleasing prospect.

"If that's the plan, then good. If not, then we have to stop," he said, sitting in his office, with a prime view of Utwe bay and the Utwe-Walung Marine Park. "Because very soon we will run out of crabs. And then there is no money, no food, no more harvesting - all these things will happen."

Moses Palik, Project Coordinator for the permitting unit within KIRMA, takes a cautious approach to the pilot project.

"If it's managed properly in the future, it will be a very good project, very sustainable," says Palik, who can sometimes be seen on the local cable channel doing a series of environmental awareness videos on Kosrae's mangrove crabs.

Palik added: "At this stage it's not environmentally sustainable. To our knowledge, taking them from the wild like this will deplete the wild stocks and hurt the ecology of the forests here [...] the main concern we have is the depletion of wild stocks."

Palik stated also that KIRMA expects at least 10 percent of the crabs raised in the ponds to be returned to the forests, as stipulated in one of the original permitting conditions.

Palik was particular to note the substantial segment of the local populace who rely on crabs not for selling, but for their daily meals and how the current pilot project might affect that subsistence activity.

Ultimately the project will run its course in five-years' time, when ponds of this nature expire due to the degradation of the water quality, which is generally stagnant and becomes polluted if not flushed or changed systematically.

The larger question then remains: can economic requirements be made to be compatible with environmental sustainability?

As the federation moves further into the financial stipulations of Compact II, the struggle to balance the demands of the free market and economic growth with the sustainable livelihoods of communities and the ecosystems on which they depend will likely continue and even increase.

Finding that balance will be the challenge, one that Kosrae is working hard toward as it seeks to bring benefits to communities, increases exports, and raises money for state government operations.