Market demand for Bering Sea red king crab is solid

AP Photo/Al Grillo
Greater domestic retail demand, owing in large part to a popular cable television series, has led to solid markets continuing for wild Alaska red king crab in the early days of 2008.

“If you are a buyer and need king crab right now, I couldn’t tell you where to go and get it,” said Dave Keen, a wholesale crab marketer with the Crab Broker, a major domestic distributor of high-end seafood.

At this point, with the king crab season all but over in Alaska waters, if you don’t have a business relationship with one trader or another, it’s certain that you will not be able to buy No. 1 red king crab, Keen said Jan. 2.

The snow crab harvest, meanwhile, was underway in earnest in January, with a number of processors posting an advance price of $1.58 a pound, compared to about $1.50 a year ago, said Greg White, a negotiator for the Inter Cooperative Exchange, which represents the bulk of Bering Sea king and snow crab harvesters.

Since the king crab harvests began in mid-October, vessels have harvested nearly all of the allowable catch of about 20 million pounds of wild king crab, according to reports compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The popularity of the domestic red king crab has been so greatly enhanced by the “Deadliest Catch” cable television series that one major restaurant chain will be adding the name of the vessel that harvested its entrees to its menu, Keen said.

After representatives of the Oceanaire chain met captains of the crab vessel Time Bandit, the Crab Broker was able to purchase for the chain crab harvested by the vessel, he said.

Oceanaire, which normally buys on a spot basis, placed a large order this year for frozen, as well as fresh king crab, Keen said, citing the contract as an example of the growing retail interest in wild Alaska king crab.

“Our business is selling crab throughout the year,” he said. “The season starts in mid-October. Last year we ran out of crab about a month and a half before the start of the new season. We are thinking that because of demand that we may run out again.”

Wholesale prices for the wild Alaska king crab are up about $1 a pound because of the higher demand.

This year buyers paid $8.95 for crab delivered to the dock in Seattle, compared to about $7.65 a pound a year ago, he said. If there had been more competition from Russian king crab from the Barent Sea, prices would have been lower for the Alaska crab.

With this year’s allowable snow crab quota at about 63 million pounds, compared to about 36 million pounds a year ago, White said he expected it to be a good season, despite diminished capacity in the processing sector.

“It will all get caught, because we got off to an early start,” he said.

Snow crab fisheries normally begin to pick up about Jan. 15, when the snow crab have good infill, and the fishing continues through May, White said.

Last year only about 17 percent of the harvest went to Japan, but White said he expected Japanese buyers to take a higher percentage this year.

“Sometimes the Japanese market is stronger; sometimes the U.S. is stronger,” he said.

While harvesters are not happy with the current posted advance price, “It’s a fair price to go fishing for,” he said.

Even with anticipated robust harvest, Alaska harvesters and processors are eager to produce as much as possible before May. The Eastern Canada snow crab fishery, which produces about 200 million pounds of snow crab, begins in April, and prices become more competitive as May approaches.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

01/12/2008 - 8:00pm