September 1, 2012 | Vol. 30, No. 42

Demand for Wild Alaska King Crab Remains High

Two months before the 2012 Bristol Bay red king crab season begins, with brokers and buyers about to begin price negotiations, some industry sources were saying the best they can hope for is a quota of 7.7 million pounds.

Margaret Bauman
Crewmember Eddie Francisco shows off some of the 60,000 pounds of Bristol Bay red king crab delivered to Peter Pan Seafoods at King Cove in October 2011.

Others, in the wake of the 2011 quota of 7.8 million pounds, were betting the quota could slide to 6 million pounds.

So it’s a nervous waiting game, until the quota is announced in early October, but still a sure bet that demand will continue to outweigh supply. Wholesalers were weighing their options on how best to market this prized seafood for the coming holidays, and not wanting to give any edge to their domestic competition.

Alaska is famous for its king crab, with Bristol Bay red king crab the predominant king crab in commercial harvests.

Ten months after the 2011 season ended, Alaska red king crab legs and claws, pre-cooked and fresh-frozen, were still selling online for $38 to $49 a pound, with occasional discounts for orders over 10 pounds or more. Golden king crab legs and claws, by comparison, were selling for about $34 a pound where available.

“There’s nothing quite like sitting down to a table heaped with steaming king crab legs,” teased one online website. “You can hardly wait to dunk that first piece of tender crab meat in hot butter.”

“It’s hard to tell what will happen this year,” said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group in Seattle. “We don’t know what the quota will be.”

“Often there is a greater demand than supply of red king crab,” Jacobsen said. “The market sets the price; we’re not setting prices in a vacuum.”

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, Rob George of The Crab Broker was explaining that a lot of variables are involved in what the price will be, once the Alaska Department of Fish and Game determines how much of this succulent crab can be harvested while assuring a sustainable fishery. Those variables include how great the demand will be from Japanese buyers, the value of the Japanese yen compared to the US dollar, and yes, the economy.

“Every year is totally different,” George said. “There are always challenges. What’s the quota going to be? That’s the biggest part of the equation.”

Another unknown is how much king crab, at a lower price, will be available from Russian fisheries.

The shell shock last year came when the quota was set at 7,834,000 pounds, including 7,050,600 pounds for individual fishing quota owners and 1,483,900 pounds for Western Alaska’s community development quota associations.

The quota had been slashed, to maintain sustainability of the fishery, from the 2010 quota of 14,839,000 pounds, including 13,355,100 pounds for IFQ holders and 1,483,900 pounds for CDQ holders.

Prices for crab delivered to Japan leaped to $20 a pound.

On the domestic scene, some buyers at the wholesale level were switching from Alaska red king crab to brown king crab, or even to Russian red and brown crab.

A popular Alaska seafood firm that does a brisk business online, particularly in holiday gift packages, observed a huge reduction in sales of Bristol Bay red king crab, because of prices of more than $30 a pound. The firm’s owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he anticipated the price would remain high. He said he expected to do more business in snow crab, particularly bairdi, in the 2012 season.

The saving grace for the crab fleet last year was the snow crab quota, which rose to 88,894,000 pounds, including 80,004,600 pounds to the IFQ fishery and 8,889,400 pounds for the CDQ fishery. That was up from the 2010 snow crab quota of 54,281,000 pounds, with 48,852,900 pounds to the IFQ permit holders and 5,428,100 pounds to CDQ groups. Record quota on that snow crab notwithstanding, harvesters faced what some observers described as record ice on the grounds, with some vessels having to retreat from the ice and wait out a change in weather.

“As long as there is a quota, we are going to go do our best to catch it, said Ed Poulsen, of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, in Seattle. “Most of the skippers feel there is more crab out there than what the survey is showing, but we have to go with what the survey and stock assessments show. There is some thought that crab are going to nearshore areas to avoid colder waters in the depths of the Bering Sea.”

There was a lot more crab back in the 1970s when there was a different climate regime in place, but the shift in climate came in the late 1970s and favored groundfish over crab, he mused.

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say the Bristol Bay red king crab population is currently healthy, but that there has been a substantial change in the overall biomass of the stock. Just why this happened is uncertain, but those changes could be due to anything from a natural fluctuation of stocks in the ecosystem to changes in the predator field or Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a pattern of Pacific climate variability that shifts phases on at least inter-decadal time scale, usually about 20 to 30 years.

Such pressures, including those of the commercial fisheries, affect stocks in different ways at different times, biologists said.

Snow crab was declared overfished back in 1999, but has recovered and is doing well, thanks to a rebuilding plan put in place by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Biologists reduced the harvest rate and used models and other efforts that allowed them to return snow crab stocks to maximum sustained yield within a decade. The snow crab quota has fluctuated over the past few years: 36.6 million pounds in 2006; 63 million pounds in 2007; 58.5 million pounds in 2008; 48 million pounds in 2009 and 54 million pounds in 2010, before leaping to nearly 90 million pounds last year.

Tanner crab stocks were declared overfished in the past year and there was no commercial tanner crab fishery in 2011.

Golden king crab stocks, meanwhile, have been fairly stable, as measured by data on catch per unit effort, biologists said. Back in 2005, the Aleutian Islands golden king crab quotas were 3 million pounds for the eastern sector and 2.7 million pounds for the western sector. A year ago, the eastern sector total was 3.15 million pounds and in the western sector, the quota was 2.8 million pounds.

More information about Alaska’s crab fisheries can be found at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/crab/crfaq.htm#landings.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at margieb42@mtaonline.net.