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Fish Factor

'Deadliest Catch' show boosts crab industry
By Laine Welch


September 04, 2007

It comes as a surprise to learn that some of Alaska's most popular seafoods are 'small fish in a big pond' when it comes to supermarket shelves.

For example, just seven percent of the king crab legs being enjoyed by Americans come from Alaska waters; the remaining 93 percent of the crab comes primarily from Russia.

In 2005 and 2006 there was an "astonishing" increase of Russian crab, some from the Barents Sea and some from the Far East, said market expert John Sackton.

"It basically doubled the U.S. king crab supply. Naturally, in that situation prices are going to go down and that's what happened," he said.

The lower priced king crab - $9.99 a pound at most retail counters - has helped expand the U.S. market. Heading into the mid-October start of the Alaska fishery, reports show less king crab is being imported, and the market appears to be balancing out a bit.

Sackton said more than anything, the 'wild card' for king crab prices is still held by Japan. Japanese buyers will base their price offers and purchase on the year end yen/dollar currency exchange rate ­ at this point, anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, the 'rock star' status of Alaska crab also will continue to boost sales.

"People in Alaska don't realize the tremendous extent to which the 'Deadliest Catch' television show has on the consumption and knowledge about the crab," said Boston-based Sackton.

"You run into people who in the past have never given Alaska crab a second thought, and all of sudden they start spouting off facts and figures, and talk about what the fishermen go through and so forth. It is amazing the way this has become such a phenomenon, and the way people think about the crab. It's been a tremendous boost for the whole industry."

Alaska crabbers last year harvested 15.5 million pounds of red king crab from the eastern Bering Sea waters called Bristol Bay. At a price average of $3.89/lb, the fishery was worth more than $60 million at the docks.

Prices for Alaska snow crab, which shares the 'Deadliest Catch' TV spotlight on TV, are also determined by a country whose harvests dwarf the Bering Sea catch.

Snow crab is the fancier restaurant name for opilio Tanner crab. It's long been the bread and butter fishery for Bering Sea crabbers, who spend most of the winter pulling up pots of 'opies.'

By far most of the snow crab being enjoyed by Americans comes from eastern Canada. The U.S. market consumes about 100 million pounds of opie leg clusters each year, of which just 10 million pounds, or 10 percent, comes from Alaska.

After a big dip three years ago, snow crab prices have shot up and that has industry watchers worried heading into the 2008 season.

The increase stemmed from increased demand during the times of lower prices, when wholesalers could get lots of snow crab at below $3 a pound.

Seafood Trends analyst Ken Talley reports current wholesale prices at a whopping $4.75 to $4.90/lb for the most popular crab sizes.

"The problem in a nutshell is when crab is priced at a level that retailers stop buying, inventory builds up and you start a getting pressure to lower prices. And that's what's happening this year," said John Sackton.

The Alaska snow crab fishery typically gets underway in mid-January and lasts through April. The 2007 season yielded a harvest of about 35 million pounds. The average crab price to fishermen was $1.71/lb, up from $1.15 and 84 cents for the previous years.

State managers will announce the harvest numbers for upcoming king and snow crab fisheries in September.

Bristol Bay boost

All indications point to a more profitable salmon fishery at Bristol Bay this year. The sockeye harvest of nearly 30 million fish topped expectations and is slightly higher than last year's catch.

Most of the Bay processors ended up sending their fleets home with an advance price of 62 cents a pound, and there are typically bonuses for refrigeration and other retroactive incentives. The 2006 average price for Bristol Bay sockeye was 66 cents a pound.

"I think it's likely we'll do better than that when all is said and done," predicted Chris McDowell, a longtime Bay fisherman and salmon market analyst for the Juneau-based McDowell Group.

"For the whole Bristol Bay region we're probably looking at a value of more than $110 million, compared to $108 million last year,"

Bristol Bay is home to the world's largest sockeye, or red salmon, run. The region also provides more than two-thirds of Alaska's total sockeye catch, which had a value last year of $180 million.

McDowell said an additional 16 million sockeye salmon will come from other Alaska regions. That means the Alaska catch will top 40 million reds for the fourth year in a row.

"That's only happened 14 times in the history of the state," McDowell said.

The statewide sockeye catch is likely to come in at 46 million fish, ranking as the #8 sockeye harvest since the turn of the last century.

Japan is no longer the primary buyer of the Alaska sockeye pack, last year purchasing only about 35 percent.
"Alaska's markets are about evenly split between Japan, the U.S. and Europe," McDowell said. "So the big question is - with a 46 million sockeye harvest, to what extent are those other markets prepared to take the extra volumes that are Japan is no longer buying."

By all accounts, the mood this summer in Bristol Bay was upbeat.

"It's the fourth consecutive year we've had a very strong harvest and the price has been inching up. I think the general mood in the Bay is very hopeful," McDowell said. He added another encouraging sign is that more new entrants are coming into the fishery since it bottomed out five years ago.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. 2007 marks the 16th year that she has been writing this weekly fisheries column. It now appears in nearly 20 newspapers and web outlets.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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