FISH FACTOR: Demand jump, tight supply leading to record crab prices

  • Crab pots are stacked in Unalaska in preparation for crab season. An increase in demand combined with a tight global supply is pushing prices to record levels, according to industry reports. (Photo/Jim Paulin/For the Journal)

“Insatiable” is the word being used to describe the demand for snow crab as the world’s largest fishery got underway on April 5 in Eastern Canada. And while more snow crab will be available this year, buyers expect a tight supply.

Global seafood supplier Tradex said snow crab and other “premium crab” saw huge growth at retail in 2020 and demand is even greater this year.

Seafood like crab and lobster are now perceived as being affordable to buy and cook at home compared to the cost in restaurants. Tradex spokesperson Tasha Cadence said that shift has spawned a new pandemic-inspired word by market experts.

“It’s ‘premium-ization,’ or customers recognizing a higher value for a product and paying a higher price,” she said, referring to comments by industry veteran Les Hodges in his April Crab Update.

The combined Canadian catch for snow crab through September, most of which is sold to the U.S., tops 157 million pounds, 11 million pounds higher than 2020. The Canadian crab comprises 62 percent of the U.S. market share, according to Urner-Barry, which has provided information for the food industry since 1858.

Prices for snow crab to Canadian fishermen were reported by Undercover News at a record $4.56 (U.S.), adding that they could top $7 per pound.

Russia is the second-largest snow crab producer with a harvest of nearly 98 million pounds in its year round fishery this year. Much of the product goes to markets in China, Korea, and the U.S., where imports in 2020 were up by 80 percent to 42 million pounds valued at nearly $341 million. “And with the Russian quota increasing almost 35 percent in 2021, there is anticipation that even more snow crab from Russia will come into the U.S.,” according to Urner-Barry in its spring report.

Alaska is the world’s third-largest snow crab producer with a catch this year of 45 million pounds for the fishery that began last Oct. 15 and ends in mid-May. The crab, which weigh 1.2 pounds on average, are sold primarily in frozen leg clusters to markets in the U.S., Japan and China for reprocessing.

Advance prices to fishermen for Alaska snow crab were reported at $3 per pound but lengthy sales negotiations are likely to push that higher.

Alaska’s snow crab fleet of about 60 boats received a record average advance price last year of $3.15 per pound for a 34 million-pound harvest valued at nearly $106 million.

If all the snow crab catches come in as planned, it will add up to more than 300 million pounds for global markets this year, a 13 million-pound increase over 2020.

And while Alaska is deservedly famous for its crab – meaning snow, king crab, Tanners and Dungeness – it’s a small player providing just 6 percent of global supply.

Herring hauls

The roe herring fishery at Sitka Sound ended on April 9 after two weeks of daily fishing. A fleet of about 20 seiners took an estimated 32 million pounds, less than half of the allowable harvest.

Herring fishing at Kodiak began on April 1, two weeks earlier than usual, due to an earlier spawn across the island’s five fishing districts. By last week, 13 boats had taken less than half of the 16 million-pound harvest limit, the largest ever.

The fish were looking good although the fleet was standing down for a few days to let more of the roe ripen, said James Jackson, area manager for the Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak. He added that up to nine tenders also are on the ground and five processors are buying herring.

Word on the docks is that the herring are fetching $300 per ton for fishermen, or about 6 cents per pound.

The earlier start at Kodiak means that more boats could head to Togiak at Bristol Bay when that herring fishery gets underway, usually in early May. It will depend on how many processors show up to buy.

Togiak is Alaska’s largest roe herring fishery, this year with a whopping harvest guideline of more than 85 million pounds, the highest since 1993. Last year only 3 boats and one buyer showed up there for the fishery that ran from May 4 to 16 when the boats dropped out.

In 2020 the total Alaska roe herring harvest of 17.3 million pounds was valued at just less than $8 million.

Water watchers

A state judge recommended last week that the state Department of Environmental Conservation was wrong to issue a Clean Water Act certificate to Donlin Mine, the world’s largest gold mine planned upstream from villages along the Kuskokwim River.

The state initially issued a “certificate of reasonable assurance” to Donlin in August 2018, saying it believed Donlin’s operations would comply with state water standards, reported KYUK in Bethel.

The certificate is a precursor to one of the biggest state permits Donlin needs before it can begin constructing and operating its gold mine, which requires more than 100 state permits.

“The Orutsararmiut Native Council challenged the certificate, contending the state cannot have “reasonable assurance” the mine won’t violate water standards. Specifically, the tribe said the state can’t guarantee Donlin will maintain Alaska’s environmental standards for mercury levels, water temperature and fish habitat,” KYUK said.

DEC’s water division may respond to the proposed decision by May 5 along with the tribal council and Donlin Mine. The final decision will rest with DEC Commissioner Jason Brune when the administrative law judge’s proposed decision and all responses to it are before him.

More than 1,000 Alaskans spoke out against the state’s plans to change the rules that regulate the use of water in salmon streams during a public comment period that ended on April 2.

The Department of Natural Resources claims the changes are needed “to provide clarity and consistency in the Division of Mining, Land and Water’s processes.” The changes would give developers the rights to take water from streams but would not allow other entities to hold instream water reservations to protect fish stocks.

The Alaska Miners Association in 2018 blamed “anti-development entities” for using instream flow reservations to stop projects, claiming the solution is to “place an immediate moratorium on processing applications and pursue regulatory changes to ensure that only state agencies can hold reservations of state water.”

A legislative hearing has been requested.

Finally, the Japanese government announced it will dump 250 million gallons of treated but still radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean that has been stored in massive tanks at the Fukushima nuclear plant that was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2011, calling it “the most practical solution.” The release will begin within two years and the government said it “will do its utmost to provide compensation to fishermen for any damages.”

Big NOAA budget boost

President Biden has proposed a 25 percent budget increase to nearly $7 billion in funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would be the biggest in the agency’s history if it gets congressional approval. That is $1.4 billion more than NOAA received for this current budget year.

National efforts to fight climate change served as a primary motivator for the budget boost.

“This increase includes $800 million to expand investments in climate research, support regional and local decision-making with climate data and tools, and improve community resilience to climate change,” said an April 9 budget document. “These investments would support an expanded and improved drought early-warning system, as well as competitive grants to build coastal resilience to help reduce the costly economic and environmental impacts of severe weather events on communities.”

This would help protect communities from the economic and environmental impacts of climate change, and invest in modern infrastructure to enable these critical efforts.

NOAA’s responsibilities include weather forecasting, climate research, ocean research, maintaining the health of U.S. fisheries and protection of endangered marine species.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Updated: 
04/21/2021 - 9:02am