Menus at top seafood restaurants these days from Anchorage to San Diego boast gourmet entrees from sockeye and king salmon to Pacific halibut and cod, plus Dungeness crab and a variety of crab cake starters.
But those looking for an entrée of Bering Sea red king crab legs will find their listings on some of the West Coast’s finest restaurants few and far between, because of soaring prices.
It’s the highest price in the marketplace for king crab “and I expect this year’s (price) to beat last year’s,” said Jake Jacobs, executive director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange in Seattle.
“Prices have been climbing. It has been a really strange market with (the) COVID (pandemic) going on and it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen,” he said. “Based on what the fishermen said I am optimistic. Based on what the (fishery) managers said, not so much.”
“Crab have been out by the border (between U.S. and Russian areas),” he added. “They are moving north and west. Last year a lot of crab were caught at the border. That’s not new, but they are in different places than where they are usually found.”
At San Diego’s Water Grill, Bering Sea red king crab entrees were posted on the menu at $76 per pound of crab.
Three Seattle seafood houses—Salty’s on Alki, Cutters Crabhouse and Elliott’s Oyster House—all include Alaska king crab on their dinner menus.
At Saltys on Alki, the “Life is short, eat big” section of the menu offered Colossal Bering Sea Red King Crab Leg, for $119 an entrée, complete with chowder, Caesar salad and a slice of their signature white chocolate mousse cake. Cutters Crabhouse had a “Crabhouse Sampler of Alaska red king crab legs, Alaska snow crab legs and Dungeness crab, all at market price.
Elliott’s Oyster House offers Bering Sea red king crab legs with seasoned potato and a vegetable for $86 and starter crab cakes for $36.
At the Crow’s Nest of the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, the king crab leg entrée is at market price, and the crab cake starter at $18.
A number of other upscale restaurants from Anchorage to San Diego also had king crab and Dungeness crab cakes on their starter menu, ranging in price from $16 to $21. Other creative entrees ranged from the crabmeat macaroni and cheese for $18.95 at the Blue Claw Seafood and Crab Eatery in Seattle to the Dungeness crab cakes entrée, for $24.70 at Seasons & Regions Seafood Grill in Portland, Oregon.
Wild caught salmon and halibut entrees at these and other seafood restaurants are, by comparison, at a much lower price.
Still, the demand for king, snow and Dungeness crab is there, price notwithstanding, thanks in part to the romance and adventure associated with the harvest of these shellfish, through industry and restaurant promotions and television shows like “Deadliest Catch.”
At a Carrs grocery store in Anchorage, a seafood section worker said sales were strong in Alaska red king crab at $24.99 a pound, snow crab clusters for sale price of $13.99 a pound, and whole cooked and previously frozen Dungeness crab at $16 a pound.
Costco stores in Anchorage had packages of wild cooked Russia red king crab lets for $32.99 a pound, with an average of about three pounds in each package.
At the famed Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Alaska king crab legs and claws were priced at $64.98 a pound, with the option of 20 pounds of Alaska wild king crab legs and claws for $1,354.
Other Pike Place shellfish offerings included Dungeness crab legs and claws at two pounds for $69, whole cooked Dungeness crab for $59.99 for 1.75 pounds, and fresh wild Dungeness crab meat for $94.99 a pound. Snow crab
legs and claws were two pounds for $59.99.
In the Pacific Northwest, the crab industry was anxiously awaiting results of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s bottom trawl survey of all crab and groundfish, according to Jamie Goen, executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association, a nonprofit trade group that represents harvesters of king, opilio (snow) and bairdi (Tanner) crab in the Bering Sea.
In advance of the 2020-2021 crab harvest season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as anticipated, reduced the total allowable catch for red king crab in Bristol Bay to 2.648 million pounds, a 30% drop from the 3.8 million pounds taken during the 2019-2020 season.
And in 2020-2021, for the first time since 2018, there was a bairdi Tanner crab opener in the western fishing district, with a TAC of 2.338 million pounds.
ADF&G managers also set a snow crab quota at 45 million pounds, a 32% increase from the previous season’s harvest of 34 million pounds.
Crabbers were awaiting the annual ADF&G announcement in early October on which fisheries would open midway through the months and what their total allowable catch would be.
“Overall I feel optimistic,” said Goen, who has a master’s degree from the University of Washington in marine policy, previously worked for the North Pacific Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association and the National Marine Fisheries Service. ”I believe in the state of Alaska and federal management system,” adding that she feels there is still so much more to learn about crab.
“Crab are cyclical,” she said. “We need to learn more about the science. The fishermen have a unique vantage point on climate change that those of us in the office don’t have. We have 60 to 70 boats in the fleet and a variety of perspectives. They are an incredible resource and governments should be reaching out to them and asking them what they are seeing that is happening.”
“There is a lot of effort going in that direction, but I think we could and should do more of it,” Goen added. “ We have started reaching out of our fishermen, asking them at the end of the season to compare the last three to five years.”
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Crab Plan Team was set to meet online only Sept. 13-17, then present its findings during the council’s Oct. 11-16 meeting, which is scheduled for online and also tentatively in person in Anchorage. Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers planned to do its own presentation to the plan team during their September meeting, Goen said.
“The Alaska Ocean Acidification Network is also reaching out to fishermen, she remarked. “I am seeing efforts to reach out to skippers and I am really pleased. We are headed in the right direction.”
Both the Oregon and California 2020-2021 commercial Dungeness crab fisheries concluded by late summer, but harvest summaries for neither state were available.
In Oregon, with a crab fleet of some 424 boats that deliver to six major ports from Astoria to Brookings, the harvest ended in August.
Commercial Dungeness crab landings from the ocean and Columbia River have averaged 17.3 million pounds per season, with an average ex-vessel value of $39.5 million over the past 20 years, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The ODFW, meanwhile, was working on a draft conservation plan to address marine life entanglement in commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear along the Oregon coast. The draft plan to reduce the impact of the Oregon ocean commercial Dungeness crab fishery on species listed under the Endangered Special Act was released on Aug. 19, as prepared by ODFW for the National Marine Fisheries Service. The 161-page report was posted on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website in August, and an informational briefing was planned for the ODFW’s Sept. 17 meeting.
The draft conservation plan notes that since 2014, the ODFW and the industry has seen an increasing number of marine mammal entanglements in fixed fishing gear, driven largely by interactions between humpback whales and commercial Dungeness crab gear.
According to the draft report, ODFW has been working closely with several partners over the last three years to come up with a proactive management strategy for Oregon. A portion of this strategy has already been implemented by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission through regulations intended to boost accountability to improve the information obtained from any future entanglements and reduce the risk of future entanglements, while also sustaining the economic viability of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery.
As for California’s commercial Dungeness fishery, the northern management region season ended in July and the central management season in May, but again final reports on the millions of pounds harvested, their ex-vessel value and average price per pound were not yet available at the time of this report.
New regulations formally establishing a Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program were put into effect by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Nov. 1, 2020, to reduce the risk of marine life entanglement with Dungeness crab fishing gear.