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Top Species: Crab

Blue-swimming crab market stabilizes, while others vie for a share of the plate

By Joanne Friedrick
July 01, 2013

After a turbulent 2012 in which supplies of blue-swimming crab imports fell and prices rose, the popular species is in a more stable mode this year.

Indonesia, the largest producer of blue-swimming crab, is still lagging behind 2012’s supply to the U.S. market. Through April, the United States had imported 4.9 million pounds, down from the 5.4 million pounds imported during the same four-month period in 2012.

The United States is the biggest market for Indonesia’s crab exports, purchasing more than half of the total production. In 2011, the total export volume was valued at $262 million. In all of 2012, Indonesia exported 16.2 million pounds, followed by China at 7.9 million pounds, Vietnam at 3.5 million pounds and the Philippines and Thailand at 3.3 million and 3.1 million pounds, respectively. 

Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods in El Segundo, Calif., sources pasteurized crabmeat from sister companies in all of those countries, except China, as well as India and Sri Lanka. By working with these producers, says Bogdan Serbu, marketing manager, the company is able to guarantee the best quality control through vertical integration.

For the past 18 months, says Serbu, the market has been in a correction mode, as prices that peaked at the end of 2011 reached levels close to the historic highs of 2008.

Now, he says, “there seems to be some stability at current prices. However, as we are entering into the high-demand season for the United States, coupled with the potential shortage of domestic product, as well as lower imports year-to-date, prices could firm up.”

Carolyn Tippett, VP of marketing and strategic development for Phillips Foods in Baltimore, says it’s questionable whether issues in the domestic blue crab market will impact demand for blue-swimming crabmeat. “Demand spikes correlated to shortages in domestic crab will primarily rely on a perceived lack of supply as opposed to actual need,” she says. 

Tippett says there has been minimal fluctuation in prices in the first half of the year vs. 2012, but she is keeping an eye on end-of-the-year storm patterns that can impact prime production areas.

“Blue-swimming crabmeat prices are 5 to 10 percent below 2012,” she says. Since 2008, the market has seen resurgence in demand for jumbo lump, which is one of the two most popular grades, along with claw meat.

Fluctuations in pricing influence the demand for these grades, says Tippett. As prices stabilize, claw meat demand tapers off. 

Demand has fallen for higher grades such as colossal, jumbo and super at the higher prices, says Serbu, while there has been an acceleration of consumption on the lower grades such as special and lump.

Crab cakes are still the No. 1 way operators use crab, Tippett notes, with more than 65 percent of crabmeat applications going to crab cakes. To help chefs think beyond the time-tested recipe, Phillips is providing them with creative recipe ideas to grow menu placement.

“Prepared crab cake demand is highly correlated to crabmeat protein prices,” Tippett says. “When crabmeat prices are at their peak, we see an increase in prepared crab cake demand. With stable market prices, we are seeing higher demand for crabmeat than prepared cakes.”

Crab continues to compete well against other seafood proteins, she says, ranking in the Top 10 highest consumed seafood products while being the most expensive species on the list. In 2011, crab ranked No. 8 on the list, with U.S. per-capita consumption at 0.518 pounds.

On the menu 

Steve LaHaie, partner at Shaw’s Crab House with restaurants in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill., offers crab in several different forms. 

Fortunately, he says, prices for two of his most popular offerings — red and golden king crabs — have come down and he has been able to pass along those savings to his customers. In 2012, an 18-ounce portion of red king crab cost $65.99 — this year it is $63 for 20 ounces. The price adjustment has resulted in red king sales equaling those of golden, which is $49 for 18 ounces. “Last year we sold 2 to 1, golden to red; this year it’s 1 to 1.

“We also have king crab bites on the menu, and the price has come down on those,” adds LaHaie. 

Shaw’s uses domestic blue crabs from Louisiana in its crab cakes, employing a combination of backfin, claw and lump meat. This time of year it’s all fresh, says LaHaie, but Shaw’s uses frozen domestic blue in the winter. “We pay a premium (over imported), but we think it’s worth it,” he says.

Mark Palicki, VP-marketing at Fortune Fish Co. in Bensenville, Ill., says it has been hard to find a good supply of U.S. blue crab. Fortune buys from Pontchartrain Blue Crab in Louisiana, but notes there have been times when availability is poor. He says it is mostly high-end chefs who are looking for the domestic product.

Shaw’s also carries soft-shell crabs from Maryland. The supply has been adequate, although prices are high, LaHaie says. As a result, Shaw’s is offering two jumbos per entrée instead of three to keep the price level. “We started with crabs from South Carolina, but prefer Maryland,” he says. “Those (soft shells) are moving nicely now,” and will sell through September.

Palicki says softshell crabs from Maryland and Virginia were in short supply initially and the season got off to a slower start due to cold weather. “And right now, everyone wants softshell,” he says.

Maryland has reduced the commercial harvest of female blue crabs after the winter survey showed the Chesapeake Bay crab population was at a five-year low. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources lowered the daily allowable catch on females by 20 to 40 percent in response to the survey. The survey estimated there were just 300 million crabs in the bay this year vs. more than 760 million in 2012.

Dependable Dungeness 

Dungeness crab harvests were a bit slow out of the starting gate, but have since picked up, according to Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission

Preseason testing showed the meat-fill rates weren’t good enough, explains Link, so the season was delayed until January. However, landings took off since then, and were at 17 million pounds after the first 12 weeks. Wholesale prices in May were $2.66 a pound vs. the end-of-season price of $2.95. But Link notes that as availability drops off, prices go up.

Dungeness exports have slowed down somewhat, says Link, with China and other parts of Asia being the biggest markets.

But domestic demand remains good for Dungeness, he says, and has been helped by attention it has garnered from the food community. He says a recent cooking event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium featured Dungeness at seven different cooking stations, and Bon Appétit magazine named it among the top 25 food trends for 2013.

Link keeps an eye on the foodservice sector and is noticing chefs using Dungeness in different ways. “Chefs are an important part of getting the word out. And we’re looking forward domestically to seeing it on more menus,” he says.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing dungeness crab here.

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