« November 2006 Table of Contents
This high-end crustacean's popularity is soaring, but
there may be trouble on the horizon
By James Wright
November 01, 2006
King crab is more accessible and affordable than ever, which
is good news for cost-conscious buyers who can now offer this
elite seafood to customers at amazingly low prices - like under
$6 a pound, wholesale.
Why? Because record amounts of Russian crabs have hit the
U.S. market the past two years, and the massive volume has
prompted discounts across the board. Imports are now expected
to dictate market prices for the coveted crustacean.
"[King crab] has found more homes because of the price,"
says Dean Frank, regional sales rep for Global Fishing in
Bellevue, Wash., one of the nation's top crab importers. "It's
being used in places it wouldn't normally have been.
"And the price has moved some volume; it drove the market
this year. When retailers [can sell it] for $9.99 a pound, it
flies off the shelves."
Count importers among those who couldn't be happier with
current market conditions - sky-high demand and dirt-cheap
prices. Through just the first seven months of this year, the
United States imported 42.4 million pounds of king crab, 2
percent more than the total imported last year, which was up 74
percent from 2004.
The vast majority - 91 percent - is from Russia, which sits
adjacent to several key resources, including the Bering Sea,
the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan, another
major king crab buyer.
Domestic producers will have their work cut out for them
this year competing against this flood of imports, which will
undoubtedly lower the market price for Alaska king crab.
While an expanded market for king crabs is indeed good in
the long term, competing with imports may take a toll on the
But what's really got some folks in Alaska upset is that
much of the imported crab is allegedly harvested illegally and
then marketed with the Alaska name.
"The market is glutted with cheaply produced [imported] king
crab," says Laura Fleming, communications director of the
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau.
"Some is [poached] king crab, and some is sold as Alaska
king crab, which is a shame."
The impact of illegal fishing on the domestic market is
"huge," says Arni Thompson, director of the Seattle-based
Alaska Crab Coalition.
"It's not a level playing field," Thompson says, adding that
Russia has not published its Far East crab quotas since 2003.
"We're in compliance with regulations and the restrictions of
reduced harvest rates based on sustainability. We don't see
that with the Russian fleets."
Thompson says there are "long-term costs" for the domestic
industry, which has brought its concerns to Sen. Ted Stevens
and others in the hope that the U.S. government will look into
potential violations of the Lacey Act, which forbids the sale
of illegally caught seafood.
Also, United Fishermen of Alaska launched an initiative to
expand current country-of-origin labeling legislation (COOL) to
encompass cooked crab products.
Thus far, their collective efforts are at the very least
greasing the skids for future action.
"Management of fishing on the high seas is patchy at best,"
Sen. Stevens told the United Nations on Oct. 3. "Some areas in
my state of Alaska have adopted strict and effective management
measures. However, too many areas have not, and without an
effective management regime, destructive fishing practices will
continue to be conducted by foreign fleets."
Russia's king crab management practices, or lack thereof,
says Thompson, have many U.S. suppliers concerned - and
checking their calculators.
If 40 million-plus pounds of finished product have entered
the United States through July of this year, that means some 60
million pounds of whole crabs were caught and processed;
Russia's quota is supposedly about half that.
"The problem is, yes, there are quotas over there, but do
they adhere to them? No," says Dave Keene of WOW! Crab Co., a
"Under our regulations, any crab caught in violation of the
exporting country's laws cannot be sold here. But the
Department of Commerce would have to get involved and levy
punitive tariffs or outlaw [illegal fishing] altogether, which
"We've called attention to it, which is good. It may
discourage a lot of people from buying [Russian crab]."
The Russian resource
Russia's king crab catch has been steadily rising since
Soviet scientists introduced the species into the Barents Sea
in the 1960s. To say that the experiment was a success would be
In fact, Norwegian scientists are now worried that giant red
king crabs, which have migrated into Norway's waters, will
threaten species like cod and native crabs. The Barents Sea
king crab population is estimated to be 20 million crabs,
roughly 10 times the level of just a decade ago.
Frank and other importers expect another bountiful harvest
from Russia, which begins fishing this month. Frank expects
that Russia will once again ramp up its efforts and that
supplies will be ample.
"It'll be steady going forward, but it really depends on the
timing of product coming in, if it comes in time for the
holidays," Frank says.
"Prices are very promote-able right now. It's a great value
for what it is."
The dollar value of this year's imports through July was
about $243 million, up from $137 million through the same
period last year. The average value per pound was $5.74, which
is down 11 percent from last year. Expect more favorable trends
for imported king crab in 2007.
Another factor that could lower the price of domestic
product is the large size of the Russian crabs. King crab
prices are dictated by size and appearance, and with a
tremendous amount of big crabs on the market, large domestic
crab legs will face tough pricing competition.
Further, more than 5 million lesser-value No. 2 reds, or
"dirty" crabs - crabs that are scarred or covered with
barnacles - were reportedly discarded last year. The industry
has vowed to deliver dirty-shell crab to the market this
Price and supply outlook
Alaska's biggest king crab fishery, in Bristol Bay, opened
on Oct. 15 and will run into January. This season's quota was
set at 15.5 million pounds, about 15 percent below last year's
catch of 18.4 million pounds, which was reached by
The quota includes a 4.58 percent deduction based on
mortality associated with discarding legal-sized dirty male red
king crabs last season.
Alaska's total crab harvest accounts for more than a third
of the nation's annual landings. Red king crabs ( Paralithodes
camtschaticus ) typically fetch the highest prices. As of
mid-October, red king crab legs and claws were selling in the
low-$9 range for 6-9s; mid-$8 range for 9-12s; high-$7 range
for 12-14s; mid- to high-$6 range for 14-17s; and under $6 for
Blue king crabs ( P. platypus ) and golden or brown king
crabs ( Lithodes aequispinus ) make up a much smaller portion
of the king crab supply but are typically available by early
autumn. This year's total allowable catch in the Bering Sea was
set at 5.7 million pounds.
From Aug. 15, 2005, through June 30, 2006, the golden king
crab catch in the eastern and western Aleutian range fell just
shy of 5 million pounds.
Golden kings typically sell for about $1 less per pound at
mid-season. In October, 12-14s were priced in the high-$6
range; 14-17s in the high-$5 range; 16-20s in the mid-$5 range;
while smaller sizes were priced between $4.50 and $5 a
A rational solution?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game now manages Alaska's
king crab fisheries via individual fishing and processing
quotas, similar to its system for halibut and sablefish. The
IFQ program's two-pie system, launched in 2005, allots
fishing-vessel owners and processors a certain amount to
harvest or process based on historical production figures.
Since the quotas can be sold or leased, most of the small
boats are now tied up instead of chasing crabs. In years past,
more than 250 boats would be registered in the fishery; last
year only 89 boats
But the biggest difference is the season itself. The
lucrative Bristol Bay-Bering Sea season now spans three months,
when before it lasted just three and a half days. The intent
was to eliminate the dangerous derby-style deep-sea ventures
that put product quality - and fishermen's lives - at risk.
"With a three-day season, you couldn't afford to stay in
port; you were going to go out fishing regardless of the
dangers," says Keene, a former partner of Royal Aleutian
Seafoods, which was sold to UniSea in 2005. "Three days without
sleep - it's very dangerous. Sooner or later, you'll start
making mistakes, some deadly.
"Processors now have a labor force with full contracts and
steady work," Keene adds. "Processors will be more efficient
than before, when we got 350 people up there and then sent them
right back home after two weeks."
The added time under the IFQ system is a big advantage for
processors; with no time crunch, processors can add value to
the product and vary their pack sizes, lowering labor costs for
customers down the line.
Under the old system, processors were knee-deep in crab for
just 72 hours and could only crank out bulk packs of frozen
clusters that needed further processing. Consumers, advocates
say, save money in the end.
Still, the IFQ program is not without its detractors. In
September, Washington NGO Food & Water Watch announced
that IFQs have not delivered on their promise to improve
management and protect the ecosystem (see Newsline page 8).
"Crab rationalization has left Alaska crabbers and coastal
communities out in the cold while warming the wallets of a few
individuals and corporations," said Wenonah Hauter, the group's
While ADF&G drops the harvest levels and wrestles with
resource sustainability, Thompson of the ACC and others think
IFQs will be sticking around.
Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at