In its heyday, Alaska king-crab fishing was a booming bonanza, but the industry has diminished to some extent in recent memory. That doesn’t mean the ship has completely sailed, though. Even with a worldwide recession well under way, many crab connoisseurs are still salivating for their favorite maritime meat.
In 2008, 77 crab boats hit the waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, searching for red king crabs, according to Laine Welch of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. That’s three more boats than the season before, and as of late December 2008, Bristol Bay crabbers were well on their way to filling their 18 million-pound red king-crab quota allotment. But while that might sound like an impressive figure, many fishermen still reminisce back to years such as the 1980 harvest, when 130 million pounds of red kings crowded into their crab pots, according to figures from the Alaska Sea Grant.
Since then, careful steps have been taken to resurrect king crab populations back to their former glory. Harvests have been limited or completely called off depending on the conditions in each fishery, and researchers have been hard at work looking for ways to encourage the crabs to flourish once more.
Another part of the process was the introduction of the crab-realization program. The program limits the number of crabs caught each season, in contrast to the basic tenet of the previous derby-style system that limited the length of the season.
The controversial new approach is not without supporters or detractors, but in terms of the profitability of king crab fishing — there have been some notable drawbacks for many previously looking to get a piece of the pot. According to a 2007 article by Margaret Bauman of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, the king crab-fishing fleet used to have around 250 ships. But under the new system, those numbers are way down. This decline has significantly impacted the number of jobs available for those who wish to earn their livelihood braving the Bering Sea for crabs, decreasing from about 1,500 to just around 500.
But for those individuals still able to gain from king crab fishing, once the crabs are collected, it’s up to the world markets to determine the going rate. And although fishermen aren’t harvesting the record numbers of better years, supply and demand mean there’s still the possibility for good money to be made.
For Alaskan fishermen, their main competitors hail from Norway and Russia, who go crabbing in the Barents Sea — and in the case of the Russians off the eastern coast of Russia as well. The Russians introduced king crabs to the waters of the Barents Sea decades ago, and for the past several years, they and Norway have been conducting fisheries on a yearly basis. That new influx of red king crab hurt U.S. fishermen — in particular the illegal poaching being conducted in the Russian portion of the Barents. After those two players entered the field, the average price of Alaska king crab fell significantly, although recent crackdowns on illegal Russian exports have helped rebalance the field.
Japan is the No. 1 importer of Alaska king crab, and with the reduction in Russian supply, U.S. fishermen are hoping to regain a strong presence in that market. Although the state of the economy means many are cutting back, only time will tell how much money is in store for those who search for the red king crab.