FISH FACTOR: Crab prices explode along with rising demand

  • Crab prices are hitting record levels as demand surges from the past year of more people preparing seafood at home and now from restaurants reopening. (Photo/File/AJOC)

Crab has been one of the hottest commodities since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people in 2020 to buy and cook seafood at home, and demand is even higher this year.

Crab is now perceived as being more affordable when compared to the cost to enjoy it at restaurants, said global seafood supplier Tradex, and prices continue to soar.

That’s how it’s playing out for Dungeness crab at Kodiak and hopefully, at Southeast Alaska where the summer fishery got underway on June 15.

Kodiak’s fishery opened on May 1 and 76,499 pounds have been landed so far by just eight boats, compared to 29 last year. The Kodiak price this season was reported as high as $4.25 per pound for the crab that weigh just more than two pounds on average. That compares to a 2020 price of $1.85 for a catch of nearly 3 million pounds, the highest in 30 years, with a fishery value of nearly $5.3 million.

The pulls are skimpy though, averaging just two crab per pot. Kodiak’s Dungeness stocks are very cyclical and the fishery could be tapping out the tail end of a peak. Managers say this summer should tell the tale.

Southeast’s summer Dungeness could see 190 or more permit holders on the grounds. Crabbers won’t know until June 29 how much they can pull up for the two-month fishery after managers assess catch and effort information. The fishery, which occurs primarily around Petersburg and Wrangell, will reopen again in October.

Last season’s combined summer and fall fisheries produced nearly 6.7 million pounds at the Panhandle, just shy of the Dungeness record of 7.3 million pounds set in 2002 and more than double the 10-year average.

Southeast crabbers averaged just $1.72 per pound last season, down by more than a dollar for a 2020 fishery value of $11.5 million.

Elsewhere, California crabbers fetched record prices for their Dungeness crab in a fishery that saw low landings and a shortened season that ran from January 11 through early May.

The fleet of 359 crabbers fetched a record $6.02 per pound for a catch of just 3.6 million pounds, down 10 million pounds from the previous year. The value of this year’s California fishery was $18.7 million, down from nearly $46 million in 2020.

At Las Vegas, a major crab market for the hotel and casino industries, television station KTNV said that Dungeness and snow crab legs have gone up between 17 percent and 33 percent in the past three months, reported Undercurrent News.

Alaska king crab legs have climbed 90 percent, said John Smolen, owner of the Crab Corner Maryland Seafood House in Las Vegas

“We used to sell our Alaskan king crab legs for $34.99 a pound and we’re currently selling them for $59.99 a pound, which is still a very tight margin,” Smolen said, adding that he believes the rise is the result of the pandemic depleting wholesale inventories.

“Until we can get our production way back up ahead of our usage and build up a reserve supply, I don’t see the prices changing anytime soon,” Smolen said.

Crab market expert Les Hodges added that “in order to maintain their gains, retailers must compete with the rapid opening of the food service sector in addition to a strong international demand for a resource that is limited in supply. Prices have been driven to all-time highs with more increases coming in the future for crab.”

Scallops are coming

One of Alaska’s smallest and priciest fisheries gets underway on July 1: weathervane scallops.

The fleet size is limited by federal licensing to 9 permits, but just two boats take part in the fishery that spans from Yakutat to the Bering Sea and can run through February.

“It’s pretty specialized and it’s not something you can get into easily,” said Nat Nichols, area shellfish manager at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak. “It takes a fair bit of institutional knowledge and also specialized gear. Lots of people have some Tanner crab pots lying around in their back yards, but not many have a 15-foot New Bedford scallop dredge.”

The scallop fishery also is very labor intensive as it includes catching and processing.

“It takes a lot of manpower, with crews of 12 people that are shucking by hand. Every Alaska scallop you’ve ever seen was shucked by hand,” Nichols said.

This year the two boats will compete for a slightly increased catch of 345,000 pounds of shucked meats, which are the adductor muscle that keeps the shells closed. Scallops are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen more than $10 per pound, depending on size and grade.

Weathervane scallops are the largest in the world and it takes them about five years to reach a marketable shell size of about five inches. Some can measure 10 inches across!

The boats drop big dredges comprising four-inch rings to keep out smaller sizes. They make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions. The fishery is co-managed with the federal government and has 100 percent observer coverage.

The total first wholesale revenue for Alaska scallops last season was estimated at nearly $2.36 million meaning an average crew share of $41,274.

That pales in comparison to the Atlantic sea scallop fishery, the world’s largest and most valuable. In 2019, landings at ports in primarily Massachusetts, Virginia and New Jersey totaled over 60.6 million pounds of shucked meats valued at nearly $570 million.

This year’s Atlantic harvest is projected to decrease to around 40 million pounds. Prices for the largest sizes (U10s and U12s, meaning the number of meats that make up one pound) topped $30 per pound at recent New Bedford auctions, according to National Fisherman.

Salmon helps healthy hearts

A global study concludes that there are some big differences between eating farmed salmon and wild, and the way it’s prepared really matters.

The Journal of the American Medical Association pooled data from four international studies of nearly 200,000 people to make the connection between eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of getting and dying from heart disease.

For those with a bad heart, JAMA concluded that eating two to four, 4-ounce servings of salmon per week reduces the risk of dying by a whopping 36 percent. The researchers touted salmon as delivering some of the highest doses of omega-3’s along with protein, selenium, B12 and vitamin D.

And they noted some big differences between farmed and wild salmon.

A wild salmon fillet has 131 fewer calories and half the fat as the same amount of farmed fish. While farmed salmon can have slightly more omega-3s, they also have 20 percent more saturated fat.

The JAMA study also referred to the wide use of antibiotics in most farmed fish growing operations, citing higher levels of “persistent organic pollutants” that are resistant to biodegrading. Levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, for example, are five to 10 times higher in farmed salmon than in wild fish.

The adverse effects of PCBs were so widespread the chemical was banned in the U.S. in 1979, but most farmed fish comes into the U.S. from other countries that don’t have the same restrictions.

How the fish is cooked also really matters. The JAMA study said a weekly diet of fried fish increases heart attack risk by 17 percent as it cancels out the healthy fat benefits of the fish.

It’s more proof that you are what you eat.

Seafood votes

Weathervane scallops, king salmon, pollock and king crab are the four seafood favorites selected in a mock election that the state Division of Elections is using to give Alaskans a chance to practice the new ranked-choice voting method next year.

Voters next November will get one ballot and rank several candidates for a given office by their preference; the top four will advance and the one getting the majority of votes will win.

To test the new system from June 1 to 15, nearly 4,000 Alaskans voted from a selection of 18 seafood choices to determine the top four favorites.

The winner will be chosen in the final seafood election on June 30.

And just as in the national elections, the seafood election faced allegations of vote tampering.

Read a great write up of the attempted seafood skewering by Liz Ruskin of Alaska Public media called “Nice try, pollock: How Alaska’s most prolific fish almost won the state’s ranked choice mock election.”

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

Updated: 
06/23/2021 - 10:14am