King Crab 101
Quick facts, terms and interesting tidbits about the Alaskan king crab.
Around 40 species of king crab are known and 10 crab species are fished for in Alaska waters. Alaskan king crabs are crustaceans, belonging to the invertebrates group (animals without backbones) and are found in cold waters such as the northern pacific. King crabs are considered direct ancestors of the hermit crab and have a unique abdomen that is shaped like a fan located below the rear section of their shell. The spindly legged crab of the Bering sea are known as snow crab to consumers and available in all-you-can eat seafood restaurants.
Types of King Crab:
Three types of Alaskan king crab exist: red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus), blue king crab (Paralithodes platypus) and golden king crab (Lithodes aequispinus). The golden king crab is the smallest of the three, typically with an average weight of 5-8 pounds from tip to tip. Red king crabs are considered the most popular and prized king crab for consumption around the world. The largest of king crab can grow a leg span of 6 feet across and weigh over 20 pounds. Many king crabs nearing 20 pounds were caught in the early 80's prior to the crash of the Bristol Bay fishery. King crab are also referred to as groundfish due to the obvious fact that they use the ocean floor as their habitat.
Red King Crab:
Blue King Crab:
Golden or Brown King Crab:
King Crab Color, Size and Counts:
Alaskan king crab is identified by their exterior color. Red king crab has a dark reddish brown shell, blue king crab has a blue tone shell and golden king crab has a dark brown shell. Blue king crab legs are slender and more oval shaped compared to red king crab legs. King crab is measured by the number of king crab legs it takes to reach 10 lbs of crab meat. A size of 6-9 would translate into 6-9 crab legs add up to 10 pounds. Only king crab legs make up the count as claws are excluded.
Red King Crab (Note: Bright Red shell)
Blue King Crab (Note: Orange-Redish shell)
The average weight is 6 to 10 pounds, but king crab can grow to more than 20 pounds. Unlike other crabs, king crabs have only six legs versus eight legs, and two claws. The body or carapace section of king crabs is typically sent to canners while the legs are separated and served individually.
King Crab Anatomy:
The anatomy of King crab consists of shoulders, merus, legs, claws, joints, tips, spines and a carapace. King crabs must "molt" their shell in order to increase in size. Juvenile king crabs molt frequently the first years of life and mold less when they reach 4-5 years of age.
Source: This is a similar image to one originally created by FishEx.com
The most preferred meat is in the legs. Most king crab enthusiasts state that the best section of a king crab is the merus section. Compared to other crab, the king crab claws are not as notorious as the legs. Red king crab is regarded as the premium of king crab because its meat is moist and sweet.
Bluish meat indicates that the crab was under-cooked or wasn't cleaned appropriately.
Excessive saltiness is a sign that the cooked crab wasn’t chilled properly prior to brine freezing.
Packaging from Alaska:
King crab legs are cleaned by fishermen or a processor and two legs are defined as a section. Legs and claws are packed in 20 pound boxes.
King crab can live from 10 to 20 years.
How is King Crab caught?
Steel square frame pots with wire mesh are used to catch king crab. Pots range in weight from 700-800 pounds and the larger fishing boats of 100 feet or more average around 250 pots. The typical bait used is herring or codfish, ironically two predators of king crab, pots are dropped to the bottom of the sea floor using powerful hydraulic systems. The location of pots are marked above water with the use of buoys and are raised back to surface after 1-2 days in the sea. After a pot is brought back to the boat, it is unloaded to a general sorting area where deckhands sort king crab to determine crabs those within regulation.
Cut bait of herring or cod are the typical choice for drawing king crab to traps. Mesh bags contain cut up pieces of herring and plastic bait jars contain ground up herring which is similar to "chum". Typically, a full herring or cod are attached with wire leads to the cut pieces of bait.
Below is an example of a bait setup which would be included inside a crab pot.
Process yields for king crab:
Only male king crab can be kept and sold to processors. 60% of king crab goes from the water to cooked individual sections. 25% of king crab goes from live to cooked meat and 42% of king crab starts as a cooked section and becomes cooked meat.
Where is King Crab Caught?
Sources: Alaska and Russian waters
This image comes from a reproduction of the one used by FishEx.com
Red king crabs typically roam on flatter terrain and are less aggressive than blue or golden king crab. Stocks of red king crab exist in Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, Aleutian-Adak Islands, the Gulf of Alaska, Sea of Okhotsk, Pribilof Islands and along the Kamchatka shelf. You can check current weather in Alaska through a live webcam.
Stocks of blue king crab can be found off the Pribilofs and St. Matthews, while golden king crab exists around the Aleutian-Adak islands. King crab in general are sensitive to water temperature. Red and blue king crab tend to go from shallow water to deep water each year. It is not unusual for a red king crab to migrate a mile per day.
When is King Crab Caught?
King crab fishing takes place during the winter months of October through January and depends on the fishing guidelines or quota established for the year.
Titles for members of a king crab fishing crew:
A new crab fishermen is referred to as a greenhorn.
A Bait Master sets bait of herring and cod in each pot to attract king crab.
A Pot Launcher is responsible for setting the pots when instructed by the a ship’s captain.
A Pot Retriever casts a hook to capture the pot line and then uses a pulley system to bring the pot back to the boat.
A Chef is the dedicated person on the ship for fixing meals for the entire crew.
Generally speaking, experienced king crab fishermen are called deckhands.
Example of "Pot Retriever" in action attempting to snag a crab line located between a buoy and crab pot:
Example of a "Pot Launcher" releasing the rope of a crab pot after its been launched into the sea:
Fresh king crab has a shelf life of 5-7 days. If properly glazed, frozen king crab can last up to 12 months.
Types of food that king crab live on:
Baby king crab eat phytoplankton and zooplankton.
Juvenile king crab eat diatoms, protozoa, hydroids, other crab, and other organisms that live on the ocean floor.
Adult king crab eat worms, clams, mussels, snails, brittle stars, sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, barnacles, fish parts, and algae.
Living Depth and Distance from shore:
Golden king crabs are harvested from some of the deeper waters of Alaska and Russia up to 1,600 feet deep, while red and blue king crabs like the sandy bottoms of shallower water such as 200 feet. The furthest point for king crab fishing, according to the Fisheries Conservation Zone (FCZ), is 200 miles from shore.
Live King Crab:
Live king crab historically has only gone to Asian communities due to the travel time. However, due to lower prices of king crab and requests from leading US chefs for live king crab, major metropolitans are starting to carry live king crab flown-in by air.
The spawning or breeding season generally begins in January and continues through June. King crab will typically spawn in water less than 150 feet.
The technical term for the estimated amount of king crab in the ocean. This is an important number for determining how much king crab is permitted to be fished commercially each year.
Fishermen and others use the term landings to track the amount of king crab caught and brought to land for distribution.
The longest general coastline of any state, measuring 6,640 miles.
Alaskan Agriculture, forestry, and Fishing Employment:
Fishing is the leading economic activity in many parts of Alaska. As of 2004, Alaska had 14,000 workers employed in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries which translates into 1% of Alaska GDP.
The Bering Sea:
The Bering Sea is one of the largest marine ecosystems in the world. Over 50% of frozen fish consumed in the United States comes from the Bering Sea. In the last half century, there have been two shifts in the climate and ecosystem of the Bering Sea. The significant transition from artic to sub-artic conditions (temperatures above freezing) caused less sea ice which in turn created increased levels of solar energy in the ocean. The rise in ocean temperatures negatively affected the biomass of bottom species, which in the early 80’s resulted in significant drops in king crab production.
The Bering Sea by Boat:
The Bering Sea by Satellite:
The Continents of the Bering Sea:
Dutch Harbor is the main port of call for king crab fisherman. The majority of king crab fishing boats leave each season from Dutch Harbor and return for processing and shipment. You can see a live webcam of Dutch Harbor. Most observer assignments begin at Dutch Harbor in which state officials keep track of king crab fishing on vessels.
View of Dutch Harbor:
Panoramic view of Dutch Harbor: