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Illegal Russian Fishing May Distort Crab Market

Illegal fishing in Russian waters could negatively impact crab prices this year.

The advance price for Bristol Bay red king crab was set last week at $7.25 per pound, putting the early value of the fishery at $57 million. Last year, the advance price was slightly higher and was revised to more than $10 a pound. Meanwhile, the advance price for St. Matthew Island blue king crab is $3.75 per pound. It was $4.25 in 2011.

Jake Jacobsen is the director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, which represents much of the Bering Sea crab fleet. He says that the 2012 dockside prices aren’t expected to exceed last year’s record levels, even though the quota is roughly the same. About half of the Bering Sea’s king crab is exported to Japan, and Jacobsen says that even though currency conditions are favorable the prices there are lower because of shady competition.

“There’s a tremendous amount of Russian crab on the market, most of which is illegally caught,” says Jacobsen. While there are treaties in place to limit illegal fishing, Jacobsen says they aren’t being aggressively enforced.

“The Japanese government and regulatory officials have been fairly complacent with it because they make so much money off of it,” says Jacobsen. “The Japanese crab industry makes a tremendous profit from illegal fishing in Russia.”

Jacobsen says that the U.S. market is also being distorted by the import of Russian crab, and that up to three illegal crab come in for every legal one imported. Additionally, there’s resistance from American buyers to last year’s sky-high prices.

Still, just because red king crab prices might not reach last year’s heights, the fishery is still one of the state’s most lucrative.

“Prices aren’t really low. They’re lower than last year. They’re about the same as they were the year before that, which were the highest prices we’d ever seen before,” says Jacobsen.

Unalaska is a major beneficiary of high crab prices because of the 2-percent raw fish tax on landings. According to city resource analyst Frank Kelty, Unalaska is projected to receive $725,000 in revenue from Bristol Bay red king crab deliveries.

Kelty adds that reports from fishermen have been positive. On average, vessels are bringing up 25 Bristol Bay red king crab per pot, and the live weight average is 6.8 pounds per crab. That’s up from 6.3 pounds per crab last year.

As of Monday, 1 million pounds of the 7.8 million pound red king crab quota had been harvested with 56 vessels participating.

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