Illegal Russian Crab Exports Surge in 2012

After several years of steady declines, illegal crab fishing in Russia spiked in 2012. The resulting glut of crab hurt Alaskan prices, and reignited concerns about how to combat the illegal harvest.

Andy Wink tracks the Russian fisheries for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. He says  Russia’s illegal harvest is staggering.

“Alaska caught a lot of crab. Alaska caught more crab in 2012 than they have for a long time. Despite that, Russia still caught more illegal crab [than Alaskan fishermen caught total].”

According to export statistics, for every pound of legal crab, Russia also sold a pound of illegal crab in 2012. Wink says that’s actually an improvement over several years ago, when the figures were one to four. Nevertheless it’s a step away from the recent trend.

“There’s still a lot of volume being caught illegally, and the question is ‘why hasn’t it dropped even more?’”

Wink has a few theories about why last year was particularly bad. When the illegal harvest dropped, prices went up. Alaska hit record-high dockside values for both king and snow crab in 2011. Wink says those high prices probably incentivized more illegal fishing. He also thinks companies might offloaded illegal inventory in anticipation of stricter export regulations that went into effect earlier this year.

Regardless, more crab on the market resulted in a dramatic price drop. Alaskan red king crab prices plummeted twenty percent in 2012, and snow crab saw significant losses as well. Wink says while there’s no catch-all solution for the problem, better communication between Russian and American authorities would help.

“When we’re talking about crab, there’s probably not a lot of boats that cross the line and take Alaskan crab back to Russia. I think it’s more of a supply chain, chain of custody problem. It’s more of a customs problem.”

Nevertheless, the poaching problem got some attention Wednesday during a Congressional committee hearing about the maritime boundary. Senator Lisa Murkowski said she had convened the hearing in part to address the concerns of the Bering Sea crabbers.

“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to folks back home about what’s going on within the crabbing industry, the impact of prices when the Russians are engaged in a probably stepped up level of fishing activity. It piqued my interest some time ago, to try to better understand where we are with our maritime boundary lines.”

The issue of illegal crabbing was also discussed during meeting between the Coast Guard and the Russian Border patrol Thursday. The border patrol’s press office wrote in a release that a main goal of the visit was to combat illegal fishing. The two agencies signed a cooperation agreement at the meeting.

Last year, Russia is estimated to have exported 123 million pounds of illegal crab. Alaska’s total harvest was 113 million pounds.

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