Industry Blames Pirate Fishing as Red King Prices Drop

The Bering Sea red king crab fleet finished catching 10 million pounds of quota last week — and they’re facing some lackluster prices as the crab goes to market. It could be due to higher catch limits in Alaska and Russia.

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There’s also the problem of pirates. Illegal crab harvesting is declining, but industry groups say it’s still their biggest concern.

03 crabCrab economics can be a tricky business. Take it from Jake Jacobsen, who heads up the state’s biggest crab harvesting collective, the Inter-Cooperative Exchange.

“Supply is really the thing that drives the market, and the Japanese exchange rate is pretty close up there too,” he says. “And then, of course, the quality of the crab and other issues all factor in.”

Dockside prices for Alaskan red king crab were down as much as a dollar this season, to around $6.10, according to the state Department of Fish & Game.

There are plenty of reasons why that could be: like the higher quotas in Alaska and Russia, and currency values giving big Japanese importers a better deal in Russian rubles than in dollars.

And Jacobsen says Alaska’s fleet had another problem this year: unexpected barnacles on some of their catch.

“Those crab don’t typically receive the same price as a clean-shell crab,” he says. “So there’s a little bit of a discount there.”

But it’s all secondary to what he says is still the biggest problem for Alaska: illegal fishing and overharvesting by pirate boats in Russia.

Years ago, Russian pirates caught and delivered more than four times as much king and snow crab as the country’s legal harvest limit. Since then, that number’s declined to its lowest point in a decade, says Heather Brandon of the World Wildlife Fund.

“But even in the last year that we have data for, which is 2013, there was still about a 69 percent harvest over the legal catch,” she says. “So we can see from trade data that there’s still a huge amount of illegal crab entering the market from Russia.”

Brandon co-authored a recent WWF report on illegal crab fishing. It calls for countries that import and export crab to work on stamping out pirate fishing — like by asking for more documentation as the crab makes its way from dock to market. One agreement between Russia and Japan will do just that starting in December.

Japan takes most of Russia’s exports, due to proximity — but plenty of Alaska’s catch winds up there too. That leaves American consumers buying crab that’s estimated to be 40 percent illegal. Jake Jacobsen, with the harvester co-op, says it’s tough to verify where the product comes from:

“The boats that supposedly made the landings are fictitious. They’re signed with names of captains that don’t exist,” he says. “All the documents look legal because they’ve been professionally forged.”

That’s why groups like his are pushing for stricter labeling and tracking requirements. And as always, they want customers to buy domestic. They say Alaska’s fishery is better regulated, better documented and more sustainable than any other.

Of course, that makes it more expensive than illegal crab, too. Mark Gleason is the president of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, which estimates Alaska has lost $600 million to pirate crabbing since 2000.

“The people that I represent — they’re capitalists. We thrive on competition. We’re very proud of the product that we produce, and we will put that product up against anyone’s,” Gleason says. “But it’s gotta be a level playing field in terms of the competition. We all need to be playing by the same rules. We all need the same opportunity to bring our product to market. And we welcome the competition with the legal production — it’s just the pirates that have a leg up.”

Still, Gleason thinks it’s possible to stop illegal crab fishing. He points to signs of progress — more international cooperation and regulatory support from lawmakers, who groups like his have been lobbying. And there’s last year’s lower illegal harvest, too.

But what about this year? It’s kind of a wild card, since there’s also more legal crab on the market than in the past. Heather Brandon, with the WWF, says she isn’t sure if higher legal quotas will make for less pirate fishing. And she won’t get to find out for about a year.

“I’m really looking forward to looking at the 2014 data to understand that,” she says. “There are a lot of factors in play.”

That means it’s not clear if pirate fishing is to blame for this year’s lower red king crab prices in Alaska. Still, fishermen say they have to control what they can. The fleet can’t alter the laws of supply and demand. But they’ll still lobby to rid that supply of crab that shouldn’t be there.