The illegal catches of crab in Russian waters of the Bering Sea and in Russia's Sea of Okhotsk are 1.7 to four times as high as the legal harvests, said the report, titled "Illegal Russian Crab: An Investigation of Trade Flow."
"Foreign vessels and some Russian vessels illegally harvest crab, and this extreme overexploitation of crab causes grave concern about the sustainability of several Russian Far East crab species," the report said.
The catches are of king crab, snow crab, hairy mitten crab and Japanese horsehair crab. The first two crab types are also important commercial species for Alaska fishermen, and illegal Russian harvests hurt Alaska fishermen economically, the report noted.
According to the report, most Russian crab exports go to Japan, though the United States, Korea and China are also important markets. A large amount of illegally caught crab winds up in Japanese, U.S. and Korean markets, though China does not appear to be a big market for the illegal harvests. A review of import records found that reported sales of Russian crab in Japan, the United States and Korea were two-thirds higher in 2013 than the total allowable catch limits set for that year by the Russian government, the WWF investigation found.
The illegal catches occur in a variety of ways, WWF said in its report. In some cases, the catches are by foreign-flagged vessels operating without permission in Russian waters. In other cases, the catches are by authorized fishing vessels that deliberately exceed their allowable quotas.
The WWF report cites some recent cases of illegal harvests that were detected by Russian authorities. In April, for example, a Russian-flagged freezer-trawler vessel that was ostensibly conducting government scientific research in the Sea of Okhotsk was found with 27 metric tons of blue king crab and 13.5 metric tons of other crab products, the report said. In May, also in the Sea of Okhotsk, a Belize-owned and Cambodian-flagged ship was detained by Russian officials after it was found with crab and crab-harvesting gear, but no permit to harvest any type of fish, the report said.
Russian authorities have attempted to control the problem, and have signed bilateral agreements with Japanese and Korean agencies. But in the United States, there are insufficient safeguards to keep illegally harvested Russian crab out of consumer markets, the report said.
Russian crab accounts for about three-quarters of crab consumed in the United States, the report said.