Article reprinted with written permission of Margaret Bauman of the AlaskaJournal of Commerce.
By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce
It’s still anyone’s guess what this season’s prices will be on wild Alaska Bering Sea king, snow and tanner crab. But the good news is there will be plenty to go around.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Sept. 28 set the harvest levels for the three fisheries at 20.3 million pounds of king crab, 63 million pounds of snow, or opilio, crab, and 5.6 million pounds of tanner, or bairdi, crab.
The quota for the Bering Sea red king crab fishery is up from 15.5 million pounds a year ago. The king crab fishery gets under way Oct. 15 and runs through Jan. 18.
The allowable snow crab harvest of 63 million pounds is nearly double the harvest guideline for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The tanner crab harvest, which is divided between the eastern and western Bering Sea sectors, will be 5.6 million pounds, nearly double the allowable harvest for the 2006-07 season.
The red king crab harvest includes 18.3 million pounds to those with individual fishing quotas, plus 2 million pounds for the community development quota fisheries. That compares with the 2006-07 quota of 14 million pounds for the IFQ fishery and 1.6 million pounds for the CDQ fishery, said Forrest Bowers, area management biologist for shellfish at Dutch Harbor.
Officials also set the snow crab harvest at 63 million pounds, including 56.7 million pounds for the IFQ fishery and 6.3 million pounds for the CDQ fishery. That fishery also begins Oct. 15, but runs through the end of May.
The eastern Bering Sea tanner crab quota was set at 3.4 million pounds, including 3.1 million pounds for the IFQ sector and 344,500 pounds for the CDQ fishery. For the western Bering Sea, the total quota is 2.1 million pounds, including nearly 2 million pounds for the IFQ sector and 217,600 for the CDQ fishermen.
The higher harvest quotas are music to the ears of entrepreneurs like Rob George, of the Crab Broker.
“I need more crab,” said George. “Every year I buy more than the year before. In the eyes of a harvester, I’m a great customer. I buy it all in November. I pay for it. I’m loyal, and I do a great job marketing Alaska king crab.”
George also operates crab connoisseur tours in Dutch Harbor in October to give chefs and others an education on the harvest, the processing and the people involved in it. Some 45 people are signed up for the upcoming tour, he said.
Russian crab bust
Also weighing in on crab markets and prices is competition from imported Russian king crab. In late September, Arkady Gontmakher, the head of Global Fishing in Seattle, the largest U.S. importer of Russian king crab, was arrested in Moscow.
The Russian crackdown boosted the spirits of Alaska crab harvesters, who have seen increased consumer demand for lower-priced Russian king crab.
Seafood.com editor and publisher John Sackton reported that along with Gontmakher, who is a U.S. citizen, the Russian government also arrested two Russian nationals involved with Eastern Fisheries Holding Co., a consortium of about 20 Russian Far East crab fishing companies that own boats and are thought to be the major suppliers to Global Fishing.
Gontmakher was charged with laundering of money or other property acquired by individuals as a result of criminal activity, Sackton said. The trio was also charged with illegally exporting more than 15,000 tons of crab, mostly red and blue king crab, worth an estimated $200 million.
“The repercussions of this crackdown will spread far in the Far East,” Sackton said.
Sackton also noted a campaign by the Russian Border Guard to decrease illegal fishing and to control poaching.
“The high profile arrest and prosecution of Arkady Gontmakher is going to greatly raise the issue of traceability and legality of Russian origin king crab,” Sackton wrote. “With the Russian crackdown on the Far East, it is now clear that a significant portion of the Far Eastern fishery has been illegal crab.”
“The arrests in Moscow are long overdue, and we think it’s going to lead to more arrests,” said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, in Seattle. “The first reports that have come out are claiming all this illegal crab is coming out of Far Eastern Russian king crab fisheries, but the Alaska Crab Coalition and others maintain that there is extensive illegal fishing going on in the Barent Sea, and that is the rest of the story. Without a system of traceability, you can’t tell what area the Russian king crab is coming from. Those involved are taking advantage of a lack of traceability.”
The whole situation, Thomson said, begs the need for further investigation by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Gontmakher is the biggest importer of Russian crab in the U.S., and if he is convicted in Russia, then the people who transport or sell the crab he is importing will be looking for other sources, Thomson said.
“The Alaska Crab Coalition and others in the Alaska crab industry are aware that there are other companies over there who have also been engaged in illegal fishing and illegal export of king crab caught above quota,” he said.
Along with the Russian sting operation, the good news for Alaska king crab harvesters is the increasing consumer demand for environmentally friendly seafood, Thomson said.
“I’m not a marketing expert, but we hope people are willing to pay some premium for sustainably caught Alaska king, snow and tanner crab,” he said.
The cost of getting wild Alaska crab to the market is higher than for Russian crab.
Under the crab rationalization program, a controversial plan that dozens of skippers and crew have blamed for lost jobs and lower wages, the industry has had to chip in on the cost of management.
“Three percent of the gross harvest goes to management cost, plus we are paying $500,000 to $1 million for observers” (on crab harvesting vessels), Thomson said.
But the Crab Broker isn’t so sure whether sustainability will draw more retail buyers of Alaska crab.
“There are a lot of retailers out there who buy Russian who will not all of a sudden buy Alaska king crab,” George said. “If they were looking for quality, they would have bought Alaskan in the first place.”