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Top Species: King, snow crab

Popular and plentiful, crab continues to appeal

By Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2010

Serving it steamed and with drawn butter, Executive Chef David Greenwell goes through more than 200 pounds of Alaska snow crab each week. Crab ranks in the top 15 percent of best sellers on Greenwell's menu at 42nd St. Oyster Bar, a seafood and chophouse in Raleigh, N.C.

There's little downside to snow crab, he says, citing its steady price versus other species, such as grouper, tuna and salmon, and its easy preparation. He pays between $5 and $6 per pound, he says, and has only recently seen a 50-cent per-pound increase.

"Snow crab is comfort food," says Greenwell, who typically offers 8-ounce clusters to his diners. The brine frozen version he buys retains its crisp shells and is easier for customers to handle, he says.

While Greenwell has had to fill in his purchases once and a while with crab from Russia or Canada when Alaska product isn't available, that's rarely happened in his nine-year tenure at 42nd St., he says.

"It's important to give customers something that is absolutely consistent," he says. And Alaska has managed its crab stocks very well, he adds. "These days when you have to buy so much foreign [product], it's nice to know that you can buy domestic crab."

 

Jumping on the bandwagon

The operators of Northport Fisheries in Snohomish, Wash., have also recognized the popularity of Alaska crab, having started a fresh red king crab program last year with UniSea in Redmond, Wash.

Northport buys directly from suppliers in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, says President Keith Goodnight, and uses FedEx to ship it to clients, which are typically restaurants and retail stores.

Previously, the company had dealt in Dungeness crab, and king was considered a good commodity to add, says Jeremy Lee, Northport's VP and sales manager.

Goodnight and Lee say the program works because they aren't competing with their distributors, but rather expediting the process. Via Northport's Web site, distributors set up a database of their customers and order what each client needs. If an order is given on Friday it's filled over the weekend, depending on the weather in Dutch Harbor, and 
then FedExed for Wednesday delivery.

Sending to the customer directly has cut delivery time in half, says Lee. 
Overnighting product is more expensive, so cost saving isn't as much of a gain as is improved quality, he says.

Most customers are buying sections in the 2-pound or higher size, says Lee. And a small percentage want whole-cooked crabs for display purposes, adds Goodnight.

About half the orders are for restaurants, which want a weekly shipment, he says. New this year, adds 
Goodnight, will be the addition of golden king crab. Marketing for that product begins this month, with shipments starting Sept. 1.

Looking at the 2009 Alaska crab season, Laura Fleming, director of communications for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, says both the snow and king crab seasons went well in 2009.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game reported Bering Sea harvests of snow and red king crab came to 58.55 and 20.36 million pounds, respectively. And the Aleutian Islands contributed another nearly 6 million pounds of golden king crab. Golden or brown crab has become a niche item, she says. "It's a premium product from a sustainable fishery," says Fleming.

Ex-vessel prices for Bering Sea snow crab in 2009 were $1.37 per pound, while kings were nearly $5 a pound. The price of golden kings was $2.75 per pound.

While supply was adequate, Fleming says the size of the king crabs was down slightly, to about 6.3 pounds, which is attributed to the current stage in the animal's lifecycle.

For retailers wanting to promote king crab, Fleming says it doesn't take much of an investment to make a big statement. A whole crab on display can certainly garner customers' attention.

Likewise, she says, rather than pack a case with small amounts of many seafood species, specializing when king crab is available can make a statement.

"A seafood display can draw people in," she says.

Unlike king crab, snow crab hasn't translated to 
the supermarket fresh case as easily, says Fleming.

"There is some interest to use species they haven't had in the case before," she says, adding that consumers and retailers alike will need more information for snow crab to catch on.

Snow crab does appear in some deli cases, but as a non-branded item, "so it doesn't add recognition for Alaska seafood," she points out.

Crab also can be used to support the health-benefit message that retailers have created with other omega-3-fatty-acid-rich seafood, such as salmon. "Crab is on par with pollock for omega-3s," she explains, along with being a low-calorie, high-protein food.

While Alaska is a major player in king crab production, Russia continued to lead imports in 2009 with 32 million pounds. The presence of Russian king crab in the marketplace has been the biggest factor influencing price for domestic product, says Fleming.

 

Competition from the North

Canada is Alaska's biggest snow crab competitor. In 2009, Canada exported 101.8 million pounds of snow crab to the United States, followed by Russia with 11.5 million pounds and China at 1.8 million.

Japan continues to be the largest customer for Alaska snow crab, says Fleming.

That's also true for Canadian snow crab, says Clyde Jackman, minister of the Department of Fisheries & Aquaculture for 
Newfoundland and Labrador. Speaking from his office in St. John's, Newfoundland, Jackman says about 40 percent of the 2010 snow crab harvest has been sold to Japan. In the past, he notes, Japan acquired about 25 percent. Interest has grown because "crab is a high-quality product and the market is appreciative of that," he says. The United States is still Canada's 
chief market.

The Canadian season got a late start as a collective bargaining process with processors and harvesters lingered. The season usually begins in April, says Jackman, but didn't get under way until May 3. After some haggling, the agreed-upon base price was $1.35 (Canadian). While even that "caused some reservations for processors and harvesters," he says, "information we have gotten back is that conditions have worked and prices have been at or above the limit."

In early July it was too 
early to tell if the slow 
start would result in an abbreviated catch. Stocks are managed by the Canadian government, and once harvesters hit soft shell crabs, the season is closed.

The Canadian crab fishery is the area's biggest economic generator, so it is being closely monitored to ensure its longevity. "We see some areas with a decline in stocks," he says, "but decisions will be made to preserve our fisheries."

 

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

 

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