Good cluster luck for crabbers
Even though the price is down substantially from last year's record of $10 per pound, this year's red king harvest may fetch the second-highest price ever with the help of larger crab. With the season nearly over on Monday, the average weight was 6.85 pounds, up from 6.2 pounds the prior year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.
Bigger crab means higher prices, with a higher price paid for a section weighing more than 900 grams, according to Jake Jacobsen, of the Inter Cooperative Exchange, in Seattle, representing crabbers. A section is a crab halved for packaging, into four legs, also called a cluster. Some vessels have reported landings with the average crab weighing over seven pounds, he said.
The present price of $7.25 per pound for may later exceed the previous record of $7.50 based on post-season sales of Bristol Bay red king crab, according to Jacobsen.
Last year's high prices were too expensive for supermarket sales, with restaurants gobbling up the pricey product. It's unclear now if any of this year's still-spendy shellfish will make it into supermarkets, Jacobsen said.
Another favorable factor for higher prices is the crab's attractive appearance, not heavily covered with barnacles, which can mean lower prices, said Unalaska city natural resources analyst Frank Kelty.
"If they've got barnacles all over the legs, right away they're a No. 2," he said.
While prices are down, fishermen can't complain too much, Jacobsen said, though the price would be higher if not for a large influx of illegally harvested red king crab flooding Japanese and U.S. markets, because of a smuggling network snaking into Korea for legal laundering, and then to China for processing.
"Kinkos in downtown Busan produces better Russian export documents than the Russian government," according to Jacobsen, who monitors the Russian media with the help of a private translation service costing $4,500 year, plus free media translated by Google's free translation service.
Some of Google's translations are "hilarious" he said, like with " snow crab legs and sections" translated as "snow crab sawdust."
The high price of crab makes poaching and smuggling very attractive, and corrupt officials do little to stop it, with some Russian captains busted numerous times soon returning to the fishing grounds in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, Jacobsen said.
For every crab caught legally in Russia, five are illegal, through gray and black markets, he said. A gray market is when boats allowed to fish king crab exceed their quotas and mislabel the kings as snow crab or finfish.
The black market involves totally illegal vessels, sometimes waiting for rough weather when law enforcement vessels are likely to stay in port for safety reasons, Jacobsen said.
The illegal crab fishery not only depresses domestic prices, but also means lower tax revenues for the Russian government, which vows to enforce an anti-poaching international treaty, though he has his doubts.
"I'll believe it when I see it," Jacobsen said.
The Bristol Bay red king crab season opened on Oct. 15, and on Tuesday, the season was almost over. Just 11 boats were still crabbing, and 52 had taken their red king quota, according to Fish and Game, reporting a harvest of 7.36 million pounds taken from the season's quota of 7.85 million pounds, almost the same as last year.
In the St. Matthews blue king crab fishery on Tuesday, 679,000 pounds were harvested from a quota of 1.63 million pounds, with 16 vessels still registered, while one had finished fishing.
Bering Sea snow crab is the next big shellfish harvest, which typically starts in January, with a substantially reduced quota of around 66 million pounds, down from 89 million last year.
Jacobsen said weather forecasts indicated perhaps a repeat of last year for ice obstructing the fishing grounds, and denting boat hulls. Some boats are getting better prepared by reinforcing their bows with more steel, Jacobsen said.
Jim Paulin can be reached at email@example.com