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Fish Factor

Barents Sea snow crab could foil market,
Deadliest Catch?, & Labels are misleading

By Laine Welch


February 10, 2008
Sunday PM

It's an invasive species problem that Alaska would love to have. Millions of snow crab are on the march in the Barents Sea and no one knows how they got there or what to do with them - yet.

The Barents Sea, which straddles Norway and Russia, is the same source of all of that jumbo king crab (much of it caught illegally) that wreaked havoc on Alaska's market for the past couple of years.

But unlike king crabs, which were purposely introduced by Russia into those waters in 1966, the opilio (snow) crab is a true invasive species.Long time market analyst Ken Talley reports that no one is sure how the snow crab reached the Barents Sea. The first sightings appeared in the Russian zone in 1996.

"The most likely way, say scientists, is from ballast water in tankers that ply the waters," Talley wrote in his bi-monthly Seafood Trends newsletters.

According to Jan Sundet, a leading Norwegian scientist and crab expert, the snow crab stock is estimated at 10-12 million adults, similar to the abundance of the region's king crab.

No matter how they got there, the snow crab are spreading fast.

"They are now routinely caught by Russian and Norwegian king crab fishermen," Talley said.

The Norwegians have no interest in such a fishery at this time, Talley added. Rather, they are worried about the environmental impacts of this invasive species on their traditional fisheries. By law, fishermen are forbidden from returning any snow crab back to the Barents Sea to keep them from spreading.

The Russians, on the other hand, appear more interested, Talley said. "Currently, there are no official discussions or negotiations between Russia and Norway about a snow crab fishery," he added.

Scientists are asking for government funding for research and stock assessments on the Barents Sea snow crab. When and if the situation clarifies, a commercial fishery will develop, Talley predicts.

"Fishermen and marketers are watching the situation carefully," he said. "The impact of a fishery with huge volumes snow crab, could foil the crab market just as Barents Sea red king crab has done."

Alaska supplies only about 10 percent to the U.S. snow crab market, which purchases roughly100 million pounds per year. The bulk of the catch comes from Russia and primarily, eastern Canada.

Deadliest Catch?

Think again - It comes as a surprise that the most lethal fishery is not crabbing in the Bering Sea. Pacific Fishing magazine reports that Dungeness crabbers in the Pacific Northwest have the highest fatality rate of them all ­ 17 deaths in the past seven years. That's 50 percent higher than Bering Sea crabbers, and four times the rate of all U.S. fisheries.

Labels are misleading

Many popular foods claim they are 'Made in America' ­ but the stuff that's in them probably comes from elsewhere, notably China. Because of cheap labor and minimal environmental regulations, China now dominates the world market in vitamin supplements and other chemical food additives commonly used in American processed foods, such as stabilizers and emulsifiers

But U.S. food makers are not required to disclose the source of the ingredients in their products, and that leads to lots of labeling loopholes.

"With raw materials, if a product is changed substantially, like breaded, it becomes a product of the U.S. no matter where the raw material comes from. So if you're interested in what the raw material is, there is really no way to tell," said Pat Shanahan, program director with the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers marketing group. GAPP represents all Alaska shore based and at-sea pollock producers.

To help ease the confusion for seafood buyers, GAPP uses its own prominent label to assure buyers of its origin.

"Our competing products are Alaska pollock that is caught in Russian waters. It's headed and gutted and frozen on board the Russian boats, and shipped to China for further processing. But if that fish is given a crispy coating Stateside, the product you see on supermarket shelves will say 'Product of USA'," Shanahan explained.

The same confusion applies to canned seafood. Companies can sell foreign or farmed canned salmon, for example, with the same labels as Alaska products. Because the new Country of Origin labeling laws don't apply to canned seafoods, customers can't tell if it is truly an Alaska product.

Certainly, most major food companies are rigorous about the ingredients they use. But at a time when the U.S. is importing more foods than ever, federal budget constraints have reduced inspections to less than one percent of all U.S. food imports.


Kodiak-based Laine Welch has been reporting news of Alaska's seafood industry for print and radio for 20 years. Fish Factor appears in 15 newspapers and websites. Laine's Fish Radio programs air daily on more than 25 stations across Alaska.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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