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Fish Factor

Crab industry fed up with being pinched
By Laine Welch


September 05, 2006

Alaska's Bering Sea crab industry is fed up with being pinched by Russian poachers who are flooding U.S. markets with illegally caught king crab from the Barents Sea. Industry leaders are joining international efforts to crackdown on the illegal fishing, and also are asking for help from Congress.

The Barents Sea, which straddles Norway and Russia, is home to the world's biggest new crab boom. Both countries have been conducting a legal fishery there for less than five years. King crab was transplanted to the Barents Sea by Russians about 60 years ago. Today, the largely untapped resource is estimated at 12 million legal size king crabs and it is growing fast.

The Norwegian share of the king crab quota last year was 240,000 crabs (about two million pounds); the Russian quota was three million animals (22 million pounds). While there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Norwegian crabbers, fisheries officials estimate the Russian poaching rate topped 44 million pounds of king crab in the past year - two times the legal catch quota. A similar illegal catch is also projected for 2007 and 2008.

Most of the poundage is ending up in the U.S., according to Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Crab Coalition (ACC), a Seattle-based trade group that is leading the charge to curtail the crab influx. Thomson discussed the problem last month with fisheries and marketing officials in Norway, and took his findings to the U.S. Congress.

"It is clear that almost 30 million pounds of processed crab would not be available on the world market, were it not for illegal fishing in the Russian sector of the Barents Sea. We believe the bulk of that comes into the U.S.," Thomson said. Based on current prices, the illegal king crab has an estimated wholesale value of $225-$250 million.

There is no doubt that the illegal tonnage is displacing markets and driving down prices for Alaska's crab industry, said market analyst John Sackton. "It is a serious problem. The U.S. king crab supply has increased by about 60 percent due to the Barents Sea production. As a result, market prices could be 15 ­ 25 percent lower for the Bering Sea industry this year," Sackton predicts.

To make matters worse, the Russian crab is widely marketed as "Alaska king crab," Thomson said. Unfortunately, no protection is provided to U.S. consumers under the new Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws. As with Alaska canned salmon, crab is categorized as "processed" and is therefore exempt from the labeling requirement.

The Alaska Crab Coalition is urging U.S. lawmakers to get tough with the king crab poachers and put an end to the illegal operations. Importation of illegally harvested Russian crab is prohibited under the Lacey Act and violators face stiff penalties. Mislabeling the crab also may violate laws that apply to deceptive marketing practices. The Bering Sea industry also is supporting plans by Norwegian and other European authorities to have all fish products go through customs clearance at approved ports, instead of being exported directly from the fishing grounds. The Coalition also is recommending mandatory satellite tracking on Russian crab vessels, and development of a system of traceability of landings.

"We need to take these steps if we are to pull ourselves out of the quagmire of depressed prices," the ACC's Thomson said.

In general, illegal fishing has always existed but the practice has grown alarmingly in recent decades. Kofi Annan, General Secretary of the United Nations, said at a recent world summit: "The increase in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing can be seen as one of the most serious problems endangering world fisheries." The U.N. estimates the global value of illegally harvested fish at between $4 -$9 billion annually.

Copper River coho promo - Copper River fishermen have expanded the offerings of their famous fish to include coho (silver) salmon. Fresh silvers are on their way now to eager retail partners in Seattle and Boston, where a snappy radio ad (produced by Jack Frost of Anchorage) plugs the arrival of "the last great salmon of the season."

The coho promotion is the first effort by the fishermen-controlled Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, which is funded by a one percent tax on their salmon catches. Marketing coordinator Beth Poole said the coho promo "keeps the Copper River name out there longer, and that coho is a great introductory and more affordable fish."

Poole added that the Association is in the midst of developing a more comprehensive plan for all salmon in the region "to benefit our fishermen, processors and our local communities."

Coho raise cancer funds - As another example of how the Copper River fishing community works together - coho fishermen are donating a penny a pound all season as a fundraiser for Rick Johnson on the F/V Polar Star to help pay the bills for his cancer treatments. Copper River Seafoods is donating one penny for every pound of silvers it buys, and will match all similar donations made by salmon harvesters.

Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.

Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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