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Shellfish Update: King Crab

Balanced supply and demand are expected to keep prices firm at least through year's end

November 01, 2005

Ample supplies of Russian product, coupled with a new management system for Alaska’s crab fisheries, is making for a placid market for king crab as 2006 approaches.

“There’s still time to write ads” for the year-end holidays, said Dean Frank of Global Fishing in Bellevue, Wash., one of the nation’s largest king-crab importers, in mid-October. “The market’s stable. There’s no need to rush. Supply and demand are in balance.”

The United States imported 24.6 million pounds of king crab from Russia — by far the United States’ No. 1 king-crab supplier — through August, double 2004’s total. And there’s more product on the way.

More king crab from the Barents Sea, which both Norway and Russia fish, is due to hit the U.S. market this month.

The quotas are set at 280,000 crabs in Norwegian waters, the same as last year, and at 1.4 million pounds in Russian waters, up a whopping 900,000 crabs from 2004.

Red king crab was introduced to the Barents Sea from the Sea of Okhotsk in the 1960s, and the species has prospered there. From 1995 to 2002, the population increased six-fold, to at least 12 million crabs.

More king crab from the Russian side of the Bering Sea is due to arrive this month, though it’s difficult to say how much.

Russia provides unreliable crab landings because undocumented catches and exports are high. Unreported crab exports to the United States, Japan, China and South Korea, which consume the bulk of Russian crab, neared 50,000 metric tons in 2004, though unreported king-crab exports to the United States are seemingly on the decline, according to a Sept. 30 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service.

On Sept. 8, the governor of a far-eastern Russian territory recommended that the king-crab fishery there be halted to combat poaching and protect the resource.

He claimed that Russia exported to Japan more than 27,000 metric tons of king crab in 2004, five times the quota, and more than 5,200 metric tons in the first quarter of 2005, when the fishery was shut down.

On the domestic front, Alaska’s Bristol Bay harvest kicked off Oct. 15 with a quota of 18.3 million pounds, up from 15.4 million pounds in 2004. The market for that product, much of which Japan imports, will take longer to develop now that Alaska’s crab fisheries are managed under the IFQ (individual fishing quota) system.

This season’s fishery, which is scheduled to close Jan. 15, was off to a quiet start, as fishermen waited for a higher meat fill. But one major company is processing crab only through the first week of November, resulting in a three-week season for its boats. Under the derby-style format, last season’s fishery lasted only three days.

The IFQ system also shrank the king-crab fleet from 251 boats last season to only 104 pre-registered vessels this season.

The goal is to create a safer, more efficient fishery. Alaska’s halibut and sablefish fisheries are managed in a similar manner.

The Aleutian Islands brown, or golden, king-crab harvest opened Aug. 15. The 2005 quota is set at 5.7 million pounds, 3 million pounds in the eastern half and 2.7 million pounds in the western half, the same as last year.

The market for that product is also taking longer to play out this season due to the IFQ system. Last season, the fishery in the eastern half stretched only two weeks, and the fishery in the western half closed Jan. 3.

However, the Saint Matthew Island and Pribilof blue king crab harvests remained closed this season, because the populations still aren’t high enough to support a fishery.

Because supply and demand are in balance, prices are expected to hold firm at least through year’s end.

In mid-October Urner Barry quoted red king crab legs and claws at up to $11.75 for 6-9s, $11.25 for 9-12s, $10.25 for 12-14s, $8.95 for 14-17s, $7.90 for 16-20s, $7.25 for 20-24s and $6.40 for 20s-and-up. Brown king crab legs and claws commanded up to $8.30 for 14-17s, $7.25 for 16-20s, $6.40 for 20-24s and $5.95 for 20s-and-up.

Reds fetch a higher price because they’re the most marketable, largely due to their size. The crabs grow to 6 feet, from leg tip to leg tip, and from 4 to 10 pounds.

But browns are comparable to reds in terms of taste and texture characteristics, according to Frank.

— S.H.

 November 2005 - SeaFood Business

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