Turmoil in Crab Markets as Supply Drops, Along with Retail Customer Interest

Snow crab for sale in an Anchorage supermarket. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

Dungeness crab prices rose with increased market demand while domestic snow crab sales brought the lowest prices in five years this past summer, in a struggling commercial shellfish industry plagued by climate change, a global pandemic, supply chain issues and international politics.

Prices for a diminished supply of wild Alaska snow crab meat were all over the board, from $74.95 a pound at Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle to $33.95 a pound at 10th &M Seafoods in Anchorage, while the seafood counter at New Sagaya in Anchorage offered Russian snow crab meat for $25.99 a pound.

West Coast whole Dungeness crab was in the spotlight at Pike Place Fish Market, with intermittent sales dropping the price for two pounds of legs and claws from $69.98 to $52.49 and other retailers, like Costco, offering wild cooked Dungeness crab sections at $14.99 a pound.

With the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery closed in the Bering Sea due to surveys showing a collapse in stock abundance and Eastern Bering Sea snow crab harvest quotas slashed to the lowest in over 40 years, the crab industry was holding out hope that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its October 2022 meeting in Anchorage would “do the right thing and take action to help crab stocks recover,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Given the collapse of crab fisheries this past season, there were still around 40 vessels participating in these fisheries, some at a financial loss just to keep their crew working, Goen said. That compared unfavorably with recent years, with about 60 vessels fishing the Bering Sea for red king crab, snow crab and Tanner crab from October through May, she said.

One of the few good signs, according to Jake Jacobsen, manager of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange in Seattle, was surveys showing a cold pool in the Bering Sea.

“The crab like cold weather and the cold pool has been gone for a couple of years,” Jacobsen said. “We don’t know where the crab are, but we feel it is due to a combination of climate change, predators and the temperature of the water. We are seeing a cold pool again, so that’s a positive sign.”

“We are going through a crisis in Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fishery,” Goen said. “If we don’t act quickly with management actions and financial relief, we risk losing some of these crab resources and are going to lose our small, independent harvesters, some of them second- and third-generation crab families.”

“We are going to lose our long-time captains and crew, which are difficult to replace and without them, the lack of experience will make the job even more dangerous,” she said.

(Left) Russian caught wild cooked red king crab legs weighed four to seven pounds on sale at Costco stores in Anchorage were selling well at $39.99 a pound. Prices at other retail shops in Anchorage ranged from $78.95 to $99.95 a pound. U.S. import of Russian seafood was banned effective June 22, 2022. (Middle) At Carrs-Safeway supermarkets in Anchorage, previously frozen snow crab clusters were a popular item at $25.99 a pound. Prices varied around town and the same week the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle had fresh snow crab clusters for $74.99 a pound. (Right) Previously frozen whole cooked Dungeness crab was for sale at Carrs-Safeway stores in Anchorage for $19.99 a pound in July. Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle meanwhile had a 25% off sale, offering two pounds of cleaned, cooked Dungeness crab legs and claws for $52.49. Photos by Margaret Bauman.

Reducing Fish Mortality

In advance of its fall meeting, the Fishery Management Council was accepting information from the public on ways to reduce fishing-related mortality of Bristol Bay red king crab and Eastern Bering Sea snow crab, to be reviewed during the October meeting.

Areas of particular interest listed by the council included voluntary measures to implement in 2023 to reduce crab mortality in non-directed fisheries, measures in directed crab fisheries to reduce discard mortality, research to inform development of more effective spatial management measures and gear modifications to reduce impact on crab or to evaluate unobserved mortality in the trawl sector.

The council was accepting written comment on its website through Sept. 23.

According to Forrest Bowers, operations manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries, any action by the state regarding shellfish issues would at this point come from the Alaska Board of Fisheries, which had no proposals of that nature on its agenda for the upcoming meeting cycle.

The only domestic red king crab available this year came from Norton Sound in the Nome area of western Alaska. ADF&G biologists said small boat fishermen bought in the entire guideline harvest of 308,623 pounds of the succulent crab. The harvest, purchased by the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., was selling from $44.95 a pound at some Alaska retail shops to $74.95 at the Anchorage online retail store FishEx, but supplies were limited. Last year, NSEDC elected not to purchase crab due to concerns that that harvest would hinder the recovery of those crab stocks.

Elsewhere in retail markets, the only red king crab available was claws and clusters imported from Russia before the ban on such purchases for resale in retail markets went into effect on June 22. Some food service and retail groups had announced their own bans on use of Russian product and Russia red king crab claws, and clusters available in retail shops were not labeled as Russian imports, although retailers were quick to acknowledge where it came from when asked.

One of the biggest changes in shellfish markets was snow crab, somewhat buoyed by over 100 million pounds coming in from eastern Canada fisheries, though the retail appetite for this shellfish was generally described as lackluster.

Urner Barry, a New Jersey-based firm that offers comprehensive market coverage of major center-of-the-plate proteins, said the impact of snow crab would come down to whether larger food service and retail buyers stepped up to buy after winter and early spring reports that the interest in crab was nil.

A Lasting Downturn?

Hopes of commercial crabbers fishing in Alaska were dashed earlier by cancellation of the Bering Sea red king crab fishery and ADF&G’s decision in October of 2021 to set the snow crab harvest limit for 2021-22 at 5.6 million pounds, down 88% from the previous season. That decision came after 2021 summer surveys showed over a 99% drop in immature females compared to three years earlier, along with a substantial drop in mature female and male snow crab.

“The troubling part is that it looks like this downturn in crab may be for a few years until stocks can rebound,” Goen remarked. “If the council doesn’t at quickly it could be much worse.”

She said that crabbers are overall disappointed with how the council has handled the matter to date.

“For Bristol Bay red king crab, the council has heard from their scientists and staff for over a decade flagging concerns and providing solutions and the council has failed to act on any of them while the stock marched downward to closure of the fishery this past season,” Goen said.

In the past when crab fisheries were closed, the council adopted measures to help rebuild the stock, she explained.

“The council created the Red King Crab Savings Area and it worked,” she said.  “Now there are more impacts affecting the stock, growing fishing pressure by various fleets and growing uncertainty with changing ocean conditions.”

Goen cited a discussion paper at last April’s Fishery Management Council meeting where the Council learned about the amount of time Pollock midwater trawl gear is contacting the ocean floor, between 70% and 100% of the time. Chains, ropes and gear likely are more impactful on crab than bottom trawl gear, and designed in a way that won’t actually catch crab to bring it to the surface to be observed.

“Such impacts were previously unaccounted for in crab management and impacts that are happening at times when crab are fragile and soft shell during molting and mating,” she said. “If the council had known about the bottom contact by midwater trawl back when the Red King Crab Savings Area was created, they likely would have prohibited the from the area.”