Snow crab supplies improving, but the biomass is moving north


Supplies of snow crab may improve slightly in 2021. Crab fishers in Quebec have suggested that the season starts earlier in order to avoid a shutdown when the right whales arrive on the fishing grounds. The snow crab biomass in the Bering Sea appears to be moving further north because of warmer waters in the ocean.



Supplies of snow crab may improve slightly in 2021. Crab fishers in Quebec have suggested that the season starts earlier in order to avoid a shutdown when the right whales arrive on the fishing grounds. The snow crab biomass in the Bering Sea appears to be moving further north because of warmer waters in the ocean.


In a study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it is mentioned that warming of the sea and loss of sea ice in the Bering Sea has caused a shift in snow crab population and its structure. Young snow crabs live in cold water but migrate to warmer water as they mature. The study found that large male crabs increased their presence in northern waters dramatically, while the number of juveniles declined substantially both in the eastern and northern regions. This shift is attributed to extremely warm waters in 2019.

Norway has increased its quota for male red king crab for 2021 by 18 percent, to 1 530 tonnes. For female crabs, the quota remains the same as in 2020 at 120 tonnes. The main reasons for increasing the quota are good demand in major markets and a lower supply from the Russian Federation and Alaska.

Crabbers on the US west coast had a delay in starting the Dungeness crab season. One reason for the delay was the lack of agreement on price between the Oregon fishers and the largest buyer, the Pacific Seafood Group.

But this was not the only reason for the delay. Whales risk entanglement in the ropes of the crab traps, and authorities considered the risks of such entanglement too high, as whales were still observed in the fishing grounds in early December.


The Golden king crab fishery at Prince William Sound has been closed since 2006, but a test fishery of 15 000 lbs (6.8 tonnes) is now being undertaken. Golden king crab lives at very large depths (up to about 900 meters). The test fishery will give valuable information about the stocks, and it is hoped that this will open for a second crab fishery at Prince William Sound, following tanner crab that has been open for three years now.

A third reason for the delay was the low meat yields. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the minimum meat recovery criteria were not met. These criteria, which are set in the Tri-State Dungeness Crab Pre-Season Testing Protocols, require a 23 percent recovery rate for crabs caught north of Cascade Head, and 24 percent for crabs caught south of Cascade Head.
The US west coast Dungeness crab season thus opened at a staggered rate in 2020. Oregon opened the fishery on 16 December, and California followed on 23 December, while fishing in the state of Washington did not start until 1 January 2021.

The Alaska 2019/2020 Dungeness crab harvest is estimated at some 6.6 million lbs (2 994 tonnes), which is 25 percent higher than the full season harvest in 2019, and 61 percent higher than in 2018.
The Alaska Dungeness crab summer fishery runs from June-August, while the autumn fishery runs from October-November. The catch is not limited by a seasonal catch limit.

In the state of Oregon, landings of Dungeness crab amounted to 20.0 million lbs (9 072 tonnes) by the end of August. In the past four seasons, Oregon has been the largest producer of this species in the United States of America, with 20.4 million lbs (9 253 tonnes) in the 2016/17 season, 23.1 million lbs (10 477 tonnes) in 2017/18 and 18.7 million lbs (8 482 tonnes) in 2018/19.

Ex-vessel prices were down by 44 percent from June-October 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

International trade

Global crab trade is declining. During the first nine months of 2020, global imports fell by 14.7 percent, to 163 055 tonnes. The largest importer, the United States of America, had a slight reduction from 60 200 tonnes during the first nine months of 2019 to 59 339 tonnes in the same period in 2020 (-1.4 percent). The Republic of Korea had a 1.8 percent decline to 26 569, while the third largest importer, China, imported 25 715 tonnes during this period, 31.2 percent less than during the same period in 2019. The largest supplier to China was the Russian Federation (5 266 tonnes or 20.5 percent of the total), followed by the United States of America (3 044 tonnes, 11.8 percent of the total) and Bangladesh (2 476 tonnes, 9.6 percent of the total).

Russian exports of crabs during the first nine months of 2020 declined by 13.5 percent, to 26 796 tonnes, compared to 30 986 tonnes during the same period in 2019. The largest market was the Republic of Korea, which took almost two thirds of the total export volume.

Russian exporters to China faced bureaucratic slowdown in 2020 for their crab trade, when the rules were changed. Exporters are required to obtain approval through a two-tier bureaucratic system.
First, they have to obtain an export licence from the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and then a certificate from the Russian Federal Service for Environmental Control. In 2020, the latter changed the rules and made it more difficult to obtain this certificate. After receiving complaints from the industry, which was put at a disadvantage in relation to other countries, the authorities changed the procedures and transferred all oversight functions to the Federal Agency for Fisheries, thus simplifying the export procedures. The new rules are expected to be implemented in early 2021.

The Korean market for king crab is totally dominated by the Russian Federation. About 90 percent of Korean imports of live king crab in 2020 were from the Russian Federation, with some 7 percent coming from Norway. Norwegian exporters are now gearing up to ship more live crab to the Republic of Korea. Of particular interest is the upper end of the market where restaurants and consumers are willing to spend a little extra for high quality.


Supplies of snow crab are expected to improve somewhat in 2021, but protection of whales may disrupt this. King crab supplies may be a little tighter as landings in the Russian Federation and Alaska are expected to decline somewhat. The Dungeness crab season on the US west coast was delayed. It is uncertain what effect this may have on supplies. International trade will probably not increase while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Prices are pretty much flat and are expected to remain so.

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