This is the time of year when king crab come across the docks of Alaska. It's also something I offer my customers just once per season––right now! With delicious crab just around the corner, it's worth taking a moment to talk about crab sourcing and why, like any food you feed your family, it is so important.
If you’re in the habit of looking closely at labels, you may have noticed Russian king crab in stores near you. If there is no label, it’s almost certainly from Russia. And even sometimes crab labeled as Alaskan, is still from Russia. The iron curtain was drawn back long ago and I feel no ill will toward our Russian comrades (or their crab) across the Bering Sea from my fishcamp. And to be fair, there is a regulated king crab fishery in Russia. But not all regulated fisheries are created equally. It’s hard to trust a system where, by some estimates, more than half of its crab are caught and sold outside the regulated system––i.e. illegal, pirate-caught crab (5). This could represent as much as $700 million in crab (4). Fisheries management is a system like this is clearly doomed. Although the Russian government has recently attempted to crack down on illegal crab fishing, poachers are becoming increasingly sophisticated. It’s not uncommon for these illegal vessels to fish, cook, and freeze, then deliver/sell directly to Korea without ever entering a Russian port. Some of the vessels fly “flags of convenience,” which allows them to further flaunt regulations and inspections (1).
In addition to a significant portion of Russia’s crab catch likely coming from illegal fishing, more than half of the country’s catch is fished from a non-native population of crab in the Barents Sea near Norway. These are invasive species. In the 1930’s the Russian government seeded the Barents Sea with crab procured from their eastern fishery, but they didn’t take. They tried again in the 1960’s. This time they did take. By the 1970’s the odd crab was caught by fishermen, and by the 1990s crab were plentiful and a large scale commercial fishery was established (2). Since then there has been widespread concern among fisherman, fisheries biologists, and marine biologists that the significant influx may be permanently altering the ecosystem. There is not currently enough research to accurately assess the impact.
While Russian king crab catch quotas rise significantly as do Russian king crab catches and exports, Alaska’s king crab fishery continues to scale back at the direction of Fish and Game biologists. Although little is known about the true health of Russia’s king crab stocks, it’s not hard to imagine that Russia ups its catch quotas every year and Alaska reduces its quotas not as a reflection of the relative health of the populations, but because one fishery is based on comprehensive and publicly accountable research, and the other is not. If this is true then a Russian king crab collapse may be just around the corner.
All this means that seeing Russian king crab in stores is far more likely than Alaskan, and it also means that it can be shockingly affordable. I support Alaskan fisheries because I support Alaskan fishermen and I believe fervently in the intelligence and integrity of the Alaska state biologists that have one overarching interest in mind––protecting Alaska’s natural resources in perpetuity.
1. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/in-action/globefish/market-reports/resource-detail/en/c/1070084/
2. Red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus) fisheries in Russian waters: historical review and present status. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. , Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 331–353.
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