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As crab prices soar across Alaska, McDonald's tests new snow crab sandwich

Crabbers are hauling back pots from the Alaska Panhandle to the Bering Sea, and reduced catches are resulting in record prices.

The year's first red king crab fishery at Norton Sound has yielded 17,000 pounds so far of its nearly 40,000 pound winter quota for more than 50 local fishermen. The crab, taken through the ice near Nome, are paying a record $7.75 a pound. A summer opener will produce a combined catch of nearly half a million pounds for the region.

Red king crab from Bristol Bay also yielded the highest price ever for fishermen, averaging $10.89 per pound. That catch quota of 8 million pounds is down 15 percent from last season.

The Bering Sea snow crab fleet has taken 80 percent of its 19 million pound quota, about half of last year's. That's pushed market prices through the roof, topping $8.30 a pound at wholesale in both the U.S. and Japan, up 50 percent from last year.

Alaska produces only about 10 percent of the world's snow crab, with most of the supply coming from eastern Canada, followed by Russia.

McDonald's has begun testing a new snow crab sandwich in several San Francisco Bay locations. If it's a hit, the sandwich could be offered at nearly 250 outlets this year.

Since mid-February, about 100 small-boat crabbers in Southeast have been hauling pots for 105,000 pounds of golden king crab, which can reach as high as $10 a pound at the docks. A local Tanner crab fishery just wrapped up, with a catch that will likely come in at around 1 million pounds.

Tanner crab is the talk of the town in Cordova and around Prince William Sound, where later this month, the state Board of Fisheries could create a harvest plan and regulations to open a fishery for the first time in 27 years. The region produced 13 million pounds of Tanners a year before the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but locals believe the stock is now strong enough to support a fishery for commercial and sport users.

"That the fishery could support an expanded harvest," said John Whissel, director of natural resources for the Native Village of Eyak.  "The goal here is to get away from the boom and bust cycle, where the town doubles in size in May and then shrinks when the salmon fisheries wind down."

"There's other opportunities around here and with oil prices being what they are and the tax rate being what it is," he added. "Commercial fishing could play a larger role in the state budget if we gave them more chances to do that."

Currency calculations

Along with supply and demand, the value of global currencies has a major influence on seafood sales in world markets. Exchange rates among competing currencies affect all Alaska seafoods because they alter the value of the products being exported to foreign markets along with competing products coming into our nation.

The value of the U.S. dollar increased 27 percent between 2011 and 2015, tamping down the dockside value of Alaska seafood 17 percent. Today, the dollar index remains roughly unchanged from last year and signals by major purchasers are mixed.

"The (U.S. dollar) bull market has entered its sixth year and we are told to expect it to regain broad-based strength in 2017," reported Poundsterlinglive.com, adding that the British pound is valued at 1.22 against the dollar.

"The euro also is still weaker and who knows if that will continue, but it has been the trend for the last three years," said Andy Wink, senior fisheries analyst with the McDowell Group.

"One euro was worth $1.10 in U.S. dollars last year and now it only buys about $1.05. So it takes more euros to buy things denominated in dollars."

Along with frozen and canned salmon and roe, pollock fillets and surimi are some of Alaska's biggest exports to Europe.

"That's been under a lot of price pressure and the currency market is not doing us any favors," Wink said. "A lot of cod also goes to Europe so it's going to make things tougher for cod. All of those products are going to face a tougher marketing year."

The currency outlook is more hopeful for one of Alaska's biggest customers, Japan.

"The yen is getting stronger," Wink said. "It was around 120 yen to the dollar, and now it's closer to 112. So the dollar isn't worth as many yen as it was just a few months ago."

Elsewhere, currencies in places like Brazil and Eastern  Europe are in the tank. Exchange rates don't come into play as much with China, Wink said, because the yuan is pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar.

Halibut opener on schedule

The Pacific halibut fishery will open as scheduled March 11. Fears were running wild that a 60-day freeze on all new and pending regulations imposed by President Donald Trump would delay the start of the eight-month season. But on Friday, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, announced that regulations necessary to open the fishery were posted in federal law books and the halibut fishery will open on time. Sullivan, who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, said his office has been working on the issue for weeks, and he credited new Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross for expediting the paperwork.

New rules allowing pot gear to catch sablefish in the Gulf of Alaska were also approved. Fishermen have long pushed for the use of pots to prevent whales from robbing the sablefish from hook-and-line gear.

"I will be speaking with Secretary Ross again to express my thanks on behalf of Alaskan fishermen," Sullivan said.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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