Blog of an aspiring foodie

Russian king crab – bad or good?

Posted by beer_chris on 27-July-2012

Well, the clear answer to this question is an easy one: of course Russian king crab is good. It’s king crab for goodness sake.

However, this specific seafood raises some questions. I had seen king crab specials on at various restaurants around town, usually in the late winter. I assumed this was because that was when the king crab harvest was coming in from the Bering Sea. I mean, I watch Deadliest Catch. I know all about this stuff, right? 😉

What really got me wondering whether perhaps my television-based knowledge was lacking was a short trip to Seattle this past May. A restaurant there was advertising a live king crab special. I was intrigued, as I didn’t remember seeing live king crab on a menu before (I figured out later this wasn’t really true) – most of what I had ever had before was frozen (still delicious). The timing had me asking questions though. May? Wasn’t the Bering Sea season over by Christmastime? A quick check to Wikipedia added to my suspicion: the season generally lasts between October and January.

So where the heck were these crabs coming from? I took to Twitter … and got an answer: Russia.

Makes sense. Russia borders the Bering Sea, and certainly has crab fleets. However, my aforementioned Wiki entry also had a reference to the Monterey Bay Aquarium ‘Seafood Watch’ list, which notes Russian king crab as a species to avoid based on the fact that the Russian fishing fleet does not follow sustainable fishing practices. As I generally try to follow the guidelines of the list, I didn’t take advantage of the special while I was in Seattle. But on my return home I started thinking …

I realized I was mistaken, and had seen plenty of king crab at times outside of the magic window of the Alaskan Bering Sea crab season. King crab legs appeared at the seafood counter at my local Kroger nearly every major holiday (especially Fathers Day – in June!), and I was reminded one dark night on the Southwest Freeway that we have a local restaurant advertising live king crab nearly all the time – Fung’s Kitchen.

Were all of these places serving crab that wasn’t sustainable? Was this some secret rent-taking on crab that I had been missing all this time? I took back to the ‘Net.

It turns out that the Soviet Union introduced the red king crab into the Barents Sea back in the 1960’s as a way to increase the economic impact of crab fishing for the country. The Barents Sea is a LONG way from the Bering Sea – but still in Russian territory. Seems at the time the experiment was considered a failure – but 50 years later the fishery has exploded – and crabs are showing up as far west as the North Sea – and this report was from 8 years ago.

Add on top of this crab explosion the rumor I had always heard that the Bering Sea crab harvest was being sent nearly exclusively to Japan – kani is popular, after all – and I started to suspect that all this ‘out of season’ crab I was seeing at Kroger in a Houston suburb was coming from the Barents Sea, from a fishery that was based on an invasive species that some think, well, needs eating. This opinion formed in contrast to what the pre-printed boxes of Kroger-branded frozen king crab say – ‘from the Alaskan Arctic Waters of the Bering Sea’

This nearly year-old post on the general hounding board at Chowhound.com asked the same question that was beginning to crop up in my own mind. Was the Monterey Bay ‘avoid’ rating really based more on the premise that sustaining the Alaskan Bering Sea crab fishery required prices to stay high – and that introducing copious amounts of Barents Sea crab to the market could collapse the US industry altogether?

Was the ‘avoid’ rating based more on the economics of the Alaskan crab fishing market and not necessarily just fishing practices?

That’s a binary conclusion to a situation full of shades of gray – it’s entirely possible/probable that the Russian fleet uses unsustainable practices in their Bering Sea fishing. Making sure that a truly sustainable crab fishery stays alive is an objective to try and achieve. But who really cares if they use unsustainable practices on an invasive in the Barents Sea? Especially if it means more crab for me – AND since most Bering Sea crab seems to be going to Japan, isn’t that what I’m getting at least most of the time? Of course that assumes the Russians are selling their Bering Sea catch in Japan as well – probably not much of a stretch. Bottom line – I’m not sure I’m going to stop eating Russian king crab – and I for darn sure am going to eat it live if I can find it again.

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One Response to “Russian king crab – bad or good?”

  1. I’m glad to clarify the reasoning behind the Seafood Watch “Avoid” recommendation for the Russian Barents Sea king crab fishery. (This information comes directly from the Seafood Watch science report that forms the basis of our recommendation.):

    In the Russian Barents Sea, the red king crab is a quickly spreading invasive species that is causing substantial ecosystem impacts, including adverse impacts on lumpsucker recruitment and health of the native cod and sea urchin populations.

    The fishery is managed using methods that would traditionally be deemed as highly effective, but because the fishery is based on a nonnative, invasive species, existing management is not desirable. In addition, attempting to maintain or enhance abundance through management of a non-native species is a violation of Article 8(h) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which states that: “Contracting parties to the Convention should, as far as possible and appropriate, prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats, or species” (Hansson
    2002).

    Until the fishery is managed as an eliminated fishery, Seafood Watch© deems the management of the Barents Sea fishery to be a high conservation concern. Due to the high conservation concerns of the ineffective management regime and the non-native, invasive species’ effects on the habitat and ecosystem, the Russian Barents Sea king crab fishery is given an overall seafood recommendation of Avoid.

    Ken Peterson, Communications Director
    Monterey Bay Aquarium

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