Perils of Crab Fishery Range from Poaching to Ocean Acidification
Alaska Crab Season
Alaska's legendary crab fisheries, as portrayed in the Discovery Channel television series "Deadliest Catch," underscore the dangers of bringing in the succulent king crab while battling the stormy, icy waters of the bering sea.
It's grueling work indeed, but in fact just part of the challenge facing the men and women laboring often in the worst of working conditions, to bring in the harvest of red king and other crab, and with it a very lucrative paycheck.
The total allowable catch limits won't be out until October for Bristol Bay red king crab, bering sea snow crab, Eastern bering sea bairdi tanner crab, Western bering sea bairdi tanner crab, Eastern Aleutian Islands golden king crab, Pribilof Islands red and blue king crab, St. Matthew blue king crab, Western Aleutian Islands golden king crab and Western Aleutian Islands red king crab.
"Fishermen everywhere are always concerned about the price," said Gleason, and that price is affected by a lot of factors, from competition between legally and illegally caught crab to the value of the dollar against the yen, the euro and the ruble.
Currently the dollar is strong against all three, which means less crab for their currency than in years when the dollar does not stand so strong against the yen, the euro and the ruble.
crab is held in esteem in Japanese markets, particularly for holiday gifts, so the demand remains high, the value of the yen against the dollar notwithstanding.
But an increase in demand in domestic markets sure would help.
Gleason said he is encouraged by strong markets for bairdi crab in some areas, thanks to successful promotions by Red Lobster, with more than 700 restaurants in the United States and Canada, and Joe's crab Shack restaurants in 33 states, plus Publix with nearly 1,000 supermarkets in six Southeastern states, and HyVee, with 230 stores in eight Midwestern states.
Gleason said he was frankly shocked, for example, by what a great job HyVee does in promoting seafood in the Midwest. "A lot of seafood shops in Seattle could learn a lot from HyVee," he said. Publix likewise has done a great job promoting crab in Southeastern states, an area where a lot of residents have a passion for seafood.
Bairdi is an extremely well suited product for the Southeast Market, and successful promotions breed more promotions, he said.
A white paper on poached crab, which was scheduled for release August 11, notes the ongoing threat to the legal participants in the fishery from illegal king crab fishing in Russian waters and adjacent to the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone.
"I don't have a problem competing with legal product," Gleason said. "We are fine with competition. We are competing against illegal and legal Russian products. We are all competing for the center of the plate.
"Ours is better," he said. "Our meat fill tends to be better and we do a better job of quality control. Everything we do is better from point of harvest to the point of consumption, and because of that we are willing to go toe to toe in the marketplace with any legal product."
Alaskan crabbers lost an estimated $560 million during the 2012-2013 seasons alone due to illegally caught Russian crab. More than 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets in 2012 were from illegal harvest from Russian waters, according to a study by Alaska bering sea Crabbers, contributing to a $2.73 per pound decrease, or nearly 25 percent, in prices fishermen earned for their catch.
Tracking down illegally harvested crab in Russia can be tough, according to the white paper authored by Gleason and Meaghan Brosnan of Frequentz, a California based firm that provides comprehensive serialized data warehousing, traceability and information management solutions. The paper notes that while observer coverage of the crab fishery vessels is 20 percent to 100 percent, depending on location and species, observer coverage in the Russian Far East is 3-5 percent, and that Russia has no vessel monitoring system in place.
Transparent and detailed catch documentation is a standard in US crab fisheries, while in Russia current publicly available catch documentation does not detail where crab is caught, their report said.
And while electronic landings reporting is required in the US, including catch location details, in Russia data transmitted starts at place of landing/export does not include catch location.
Also, while the management process is highly transparent in the US, with regional fishery management council process materials web-accessible, such details are not available on Russian fisheries.
The white paper identifies two distinct types of illegal fishing vessels found in Russian waters. The black fleet fishermen, also referred to as pirate fishermen, are those on vessels that have no licenses to fish in Russian waters and blatantly violate their sovereignty by fishing without permits, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Fish harvested by these vessels is commonly offloaded in ports in Korea and Japan via transshipment, circumventing Russian authorities altogether.
This involves the transfer of fish caught illegally to large vessels that act as floating, chilled storage tanks, and are far away from the sight of Russian authorities. These vessels are normally registered with the nationality of countries known as "flags of convenience" because of their lax laws and oversight of vessels.
While industry news coverage of seizures of black fleet fishing vessels poaching in Russian waters is reasonably frequent, the degree to which these efforts make a dent in the total amount of illegal activity is unclear, the report said.
Grey fleet illegal fishing techniques are identified in the white paper as those where Russian –flagged fishing vessels and companies otherwise legally licensed and entitled to fish in Russian waters circumvent the law. The example given is when licensed Russian fishing fleets significantly exceed their allowable catch quota, and then commingle the illegal product with legally caught fish.
The influx of illegal crab into the global market has a direct negative impact on domestic harvesters and the nation's economy. In 2011, for example, there was a 25 percent decline in the price US king crab fishermen received as a result of illegal crab entering the US market. This decline has further downstream effects of decreasing the tax revenue and additional market impacts that this $92.9 million industry contributes to the US economy.
Fortunately, noted Brosnan and Gleason, some governments have recently adopted regulations to help prevent illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, including separate Japanese and South Korean policies that prevent undocumented crab from passing through the country. In the past, they said, this was a common method of grey-washing crab to blue the origin.
Three solutions to the poaching problem identified in the report include improved port state controls, more information on package labeling, and strengthened global traceability requirements. The Port State Measures Agreement is an international treaty that would require all parties to conduct inspections of foreign-flagged fishing vessels that land fish product in their ports and transparently share information regarding those inspections. Ultimately this would bring the policing practices of the rest of the world much closer to the standards already existing in the US and make it more difficult for illegal product to enter the supply chain and diminish the value of US caught product, the white paper notes.
In late July, meanwhile, bipartisan legislation aimed at deterring and eliminating IUU fishing passed the House. H.R. 774, of which Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was an original sponsor, would increase U.S. capacity for inspection, identification and monitoring of illegal foreign vessels. The legislation would amend several international agreements to incorporate civil and criminal penalties against IUU violators. It would also broaden data sharing authority with foreign governments in order to identify and penalize nations not in compliance with fisheries management regulations. The measure would also implement the Port States Measures Agreement, a provision which further works to prevent and deter IUU fishing by placing additional controls on foreign vessels seeking entry into U.S. ports, ultimately restricting their access to US markets.
A companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has been reported in the Senate and is considered non-controversial, so could pass soon.
The other great ongoing challenge to the crab industry is ocean acidification. Alaska bering sea Crabbers, along with other commercial fishing entities, have continued to invest in research addressing this problem.
One of the more recently completed studies on ocean acidification, as yet unpublished, is a North Pacific Research Board report on effects of ocean acidification on maternal condition and reproductive success and larval condition and survival of tanner crabs. The study was led by Bob Foy, program manager/supervisor for the shellfish assessment program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center facilities in Kodiak.
The study noted that laboratory experiments on early life stages of tanner crab exposed to ocean acidification show that without local acclimation the crab populations may be negatively affected by predicted ocean acidification conditions.
Long term exposure of ocean acidification conditions led to negative effects on development, the number of viable larvae hatched, and overall hatching success in the embryological stage while hatch duration was not.
As with other studies, the researchers concluded, this study identified the need to assess multiple life history stages to understand the full potential for population level effects of ocean acidification.