Alaskan Seafood

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All About King Crab

The Alaskan King Crab

Why is the Alaskan King Crab one of the most sought-after types of crab for eating? King crab meat is snow white in color with a slight red membrane that helps to lock-in moisture. In the glory days of Alaskan king crab fishing, 15 pound and greater red and blue king crabs were caught in the Kodiak and Pribilof island areas. However, due to significantly lower stocks since the early 80s, these fisheries have been closed in an attempt generate new stocks.

The Red Alaskan King Crab is the most sought after for commercial purposes but the Blue and Golden Alaskan King Crabs are also popular. There is a fourth type of Alaskan King Crab called the Scarlet King Crab that is not as well-known as the other three nor is it fished for commercially. The reason for this is because they are smaller and harder to find.

King crab that you buy over the Internet, mail catalog or in a grocery store has already been cooked by the commercial processor.

Historic milestones for king crab

  • 1940s – Post World War II - Japan begins commercial fishing activity for goundfish (i.e. king crab)
  • 1958 – U.S.S.R begins exploring king crab projects. Scientists introduce Russian Kamchatka into the Barents sea.
  • 1959 – State management of king crab fisheries inside and outside of Alaska waters begins.
  • 1960 – Adak fishery begins
  • 1961 – Harvest of red king crab in Dutch Harbor begins
  • 1966 – Dutch Harbor harvest peaks at 33 million pounds (14,969 metric tons)
  • 1974 – Foreign fisheries cease
  • 1977 – Secretary of Commerce adopts and implements a Preliminary Fishery Management Plan for the foreign king and Tanner crab fisheries in the eastern Bering Sea, banning foreign fishing for king crab
  • 1977 – Commercial fishery begins in Norton Sound
  • 1977-1980 – Bristol Bay experiences all-time catch of 129.9 million pounds among 236 boats.
  • 1981 – Peak of king crab industry - 200 million pounds of crab is landed
  • 1983 – King crab fishing stocks drop almost sixty-fold – over-fishing and environmental changes identified as root causes. Warmer waters boosted the volumes of king crab predators (pollock and cod), causing the number of juvenile crabs to significantly decrease.
  • 1989 – Fishery Management Plan approved
  • 1993 – Bristol Bay experiences stock declines again
  • 1994-1995 – Fishing in Bristol Bay is closed
  • 1996 – Harvest rate for Bristol Bay crabs reduced to 10% of males population
  • 1996-1997 – Adak fishery closed
  • 1999 – Pribilof Islands red king crab fishery closed
  • 2005 – Crab Rationalization Program implemented, show the Deadliest Catch premieres on Discovery Channel

  • 2005-2006 – 250 boats land 14 million pounds of red king crab in four days
  • 2008 – The show the Deadliest catch airs for a fourth season and a fifth season is announced

Russian king crabs

In the late 50’s, Russian scientists began a series of projects to introduce king crab into the Barents sea. This successful initiative has now led to a giant influx of Russian king crab being imported into the US market. Populations of King crab in the Barents sea have risen 10 times in the past ten years, estimated at 20 million crabs.

In 2006, approximately 90% of king crab in the world was Russian king crab which accounted to more than 56 million pounds. And, because of this supply, prices for king crab have been driven down. Lower prices have led to increased consumer demand, causing a surge in Russian imports. What’s most troubling for the Alaskan king crab industry is the fact that the majority of Russian crab is imported illegally and marketed as Alaskan king crab due to its brand equity.

Now, Norwegian scientists are fearful that these Russian king crabs have migrated into Norwegian waters and will negatively impact cod and crab species.

The Life Cycle Of The Alaskan King Crab

Baby king crabs

When the Alaskan King Crab reaches adulthood, the female will clutch her embryos under her wide tail flap for approximately one year. There can be thousands of these embryos at any given time. Once these embryos begin to hatch they will start to swim on their own in the form of larvae. In this form they are very vulnerable and can be swept away by the current or tide. The ones that do survive feed off of the animal and plant plankton for the next several months.

It is during this time that the larvae begin to settle to the bottom of the water and the molt cycle begins. This is the stage where they actually begin developing crab-like features and they can no longer swim. They are very tiny during this stage of their life.

The skeleton of the Alaskan King Crab is mainly calcium and also serves as its shell. The crab must molt the shell before it will be able to grow and this process happens many times during the first few years of its life but as it matures this process slows down. The females are required to molt before they can mate but the male will not have to. The males will often keep the same shell for a couple of years at a time.

Journey of young king crabs

Young king crabs tend to live in depths of 150 or below. From 2-4 years of age, Alaskan king crabs begin to form pods of thousands of crabs. Around year four (size of 2.5 in), crabs move to deeper waters during spring migration to join adults in shallower water to spawn. After spawning ends, these crabs settle in waters between 90 and 200 feet for the remainder of the year. In particular, red king crabs like the softness of sand which is typically found in shallower waters. The Red and the Blue Alaskan King Crabs prefer smaller depths while the Golden Alaskan King Crab will settle in water at least three hundred feet deep.

Adult king crabs

Adult females must molt in order to spawn. After molting and fertilization, female king crabs will lay between 45,000 and 500,000 eggs below her abdomen. The gestation period is 11 months and eggs are typically hatched in the spring. King crab spends two to three months in larval stages. They will molt approximately five times before becoming the appearance of a true king crab. Some Alaskan king crabs have been known to migrate over 100 miles during to spawn.

Food Source and Natural Predators

The Alaskan King Crab are known to feed off of clams, snails, sand dollars, worms, barnacles, sponges, algae and even smaller crabs to name a few of their natural food sources. However, what they eat is greatly affected by the size and type of Alaskan King Crab along with how deep they are located in the water.

The Alaskan King Crab also has several natural predators that consider them a food source. Fish such as the halibut or pacific cod are good examples of predators as well as sea otters, octopuses and other types of Crab.

Landside, fresh king crab is not only a draw to locals or visitors, but also rodents. Dutch Harbor among other ports are fanatical about removing rats from the island. They constantly inspect incoming boats for rat or mouse droppings. This is evidenced by signs like the one below which hang throughout the small island.