The Alaskan red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) fishery was once one of the most economically important single-species fisheries in the world, but is currently depressed. This fishery would benefit from improved stock assessment capabilities. Larval crab distribution is patchy temporally and spatially, requiring extensive sampling efforts to locate and track larval dispersal. Large-scale plankton surveys are generally cost prohibitive because of the effort required for collection and the time and taxonomic expertise required to sort samples to identify plankton individually via light microscopy. Here, we report the development of primers and a dual-labeled probe for use in a DNA-based real-time polymerase chain reaction assay targeting the red king crab, mitochondrial gene cytochrome oxidase I for the detection of red king crab larvae DNA in plankton samples. The assay allows identification of plankton samples containing crab larvae DNA and provides an estimate of DNA copy number present in a sample without sorting the plankton sample visually. The assay was tested on DNA extracted from whole red king crab larvae and plankton samples seeded with whole larvae, and it detected DNA copies equivalent to 1/10,000th of a larva and 1 crab larva/5mL sieved plankton, respectively. The real-time polymerase chain reaction assay can be used to screen plankton samples for larvae in a fraction of the time required for traditional microscopial methods, which offers advantages for stock assessment methodologies for red king crab as well as a rapid and reliable method to assess abundance of red king crab larvae as needed to improve the understanding of life history and population processes, including larval population dynamics.
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