Business/Economy

High crab prices continue to lead all Alaska seafoods as increased demand during the pandemic continues

$8.10 per pound! That’s the jaw-dropping advance price being paid to Kodiak fishermen for Tanner crab in the fishery that opened Jan. 15.

High crab prices have led all other seafoods during the COVID pandemic as buyers grab all they can to fill demand at buffet tables, restaurants and retail counters around the world.

“Our strategy was to get a price before the season even started. It’s simply bad business to go fishing without a price,” said Peter Longrich, secretary of the 74 member Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative that negotiated the deal with local processors.

Crabbers will drop pots for a combined total of 1.8 million pounds, with 1.1 million pounds earmarked for Kodiak, 500,000 for the South Peninsula and 200,000 at Chignik.

The price compares to $4.25/lb paid in 2020 for a 400,000 pound harvest and $4.40/lb in 2019 for 615,000 pounds. No Tanner fishery occurred in 2021 as crabbers waited for more mature male crabs to grow into the fishery, the only ones that can be retained for sale. The legal crabs weigh over 2 pounds on average.

The waiting paid off.

Local biologists have been tracking one of the largest cohorts of Tanners ever seen since 2018 throughout the westward region. It appears to be two big year classes with a broad range of sizes that could support several years of fishing, said Nat Nichols, area manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Kodiak.

“A Tanner crab is getting to be legal size around age 4 or 5, and then they start to die of natural causes or age out of the population by around 7 or 8. Once they start to become legal, we can expect them to hang around for potentially three years, and there’ll be more small crab behind them. So you can kind of think of this as the front edge,” Nichols said.

Fishing is expected to go fast depending on three factors: the number of boats, good or scratchy hauls and weather. A total of 85 boats were signed up for the fishery at Kodiak, 47 at the South Peninsula and 14 at Chignik. Nichols said the opener could be as short as three days or it might last about a week.

Crabbers can expect a lot of measuring, he said, adding that a large group of crab are going to be “just short of the stick this year.”

“Those are next year’s crabs and we want to handle them carefully and get them back in the water,” he said. “There will be a lot of sorting and if a pot has 30 or 40 legal male keepers in it, it may have 300 or 400 sublegal males and females mixed in there.”

The webbing in the pots also will add to the workload.

“If you have a groundfish pot that’s converted to a Tanner pot and it’s got small, 3-inch web or something like that, the only way for nontarget crab to get out is to find one of the four escape rings. So that pot is likely to have quite a bit of juvenile and female crab in it,” Nichols explained. “If you have a pot with web that’s really big mesh, a lot of that small crab is going to walk right through and you’ll end up with a pot that’s a lot cleaner.”

Another factor is how long the pots are soaked.

“If you’re turning the pots twice a day, you’re not really giving the crab enough time to filter out of the escape mechanisms. Whereas if you only pull it once a day, potentially crab have up to 24 hours to find one of those rings and get out of the pot. Cleaner fishing is better for everyone and those escaped crab are for the next few years of fishing. It’s the future of the resource.” Nichols added.

All pots in Alaska also are required to use twine that is biodegradable to allow crabs to escape in the event of lost gear.

The crab association also plans to try and market the catch as Kodiak Tanner crab highlighting the facts that it is bigger than Tanners from other Alaska regions and caught by local fishermen.

More Fish Board juggling – The state Board of Fisheries meetings are not only dealing with COVID derailments, but also with conflicts from fishery openers. Increasing COVID rates caused the board to postpone its meeting set for Jan. 4-15 in Ketchikan, where it planned to address 157 Southeast and Yakutat fish and shellfish proposals, and move it to March 10-22 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. Those dates occur at the same time that halibut, sablefish and herring fisheries will be underway, and the busy Southeast troll fishery for winter king salmon is wrapping up.

“It leaves trollers with a really no-win choice of staying in town or going to Anchorage or getting that last trip in between the 10th and the 15th of March, which last year was the most lucrative trip of the winter season,” Matt Donohoe told KFSK in Petersburg.

To accommodate the tail end of the troll fishery, the Fish Board will take up salmon-related commercial, sport, subsistence and personal use proposals from March 18-22.

“Placing salmon-related issues at the end of the meeting also better aligns participants with the board’s Hatchery Committee, which was and remains scheduled in Anchorage on a new date of March 23,” said board director Glenn Haight in announcing the changes. The tentative order to accommodate other fishing openers is March 10-13 for herring and March 14-17 for groundfish and shellfish.

In recognition of the difficulties for some Southeast residents to travel to Anchorage, the board will take remote public testimony at select Fish and Game Southeast offices. Locations will be announced prior to the meeting but people wishing to testify remotely must sign up by March 3. An online registration platform will soon be posted on the Fish Board meeting page.

The board also has rescheduled its statewide shellfish meeting to March 26-April 2 in Anchorage, where it will consider 45 proposals.

The meetings are open to the public and a live audio stream will be available on the Fish Board website. Written comments for the Southeast meeting has been extended and can be submitted by email at dfg.bof.comments@alaska.gov by Feb. 23.

Seafood again sets sales records - Sales of frozen and fresh seafood in the U.S. hit all-time highs in 2021, primarily driven by inflation.

SeafoodSource reports that retail sales surpassed 2019 and 2020 as more Americans opted for seafood due to its proven health benefits.

Data from market trackers IRI and 210 Analytics showed fresh fish sales climbed 6.4% in 2021 compared to 2020 and a whopping 25.5% versus 2019, topping $7 billion. Fresh shellfish sales rose 0.5% versus 2020 and 37.6% from 2019.

Frozen seafood sales rose 2.8% compared to 2020 and soared by nearly 41% from 2019, reaching $7.2 billion.

Sales of canned or other “shelf-stable” seafood declined 11.4% in 2021; however, the category still produced $2.5 billion for the year.

The consumer price index increased 6.8% through November 2021, the highest since June 1982, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December 2021, the average price per unit across all food and beverage sales was up 8.3% compared to December 2020.

Frozen seafood prices rose 4.2% per unit and 5.7% per volume for the year. Fresh seafood prices increased 6.8% in 2021 and dollar sales increased 1.8%.

“Robust demand got fresh seafood very close to the ‘new record’ finish line and inflation pushed it to new records,” said Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics.

Fish watch - The largest harvest ever of 45,164 tons (90.3 million pounds) is set for the 2022 Sitka Sound sac roe herring fishery, which typically opens in March. Likewise, a record 65,107 tons of roe herring (130.2 million pounds) can be taken at Togiak in Bristol Bay, the state’s largest herring fishery that usually begins in May.

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.

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