GLOBEFISH - Information and Analysis on World Fish Trade

Strong demand and prices rising

16/07/2021

The crab sector in the United States of America performed well in 2020, and 2021 looks to be even better, if early trends hold. Retail sales of crab were up by 60 percent compared to 2019, and king crab prices were as high as USD 28.00 per lb. The market now seems insatiable. Consumers are shifting to home consumption and are willing to pay very high retail prices.

Supplies

In 2020, a total of 126 910 tonnes of snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) were landed. This constituted 94 percent of the total allowable catch (TAC). In 2021, the TAC has been increased to 142 845 tonnes. Of this, Canada gets 71 498 tonnes, the Russian Federation 44 435 tonnes, Alaska 20 412 tonnes and Norway 6 500 tonnes. In Alaska, the crab fishery opened in February 2021. Bering Sea crabbers are expecting to land some 40.5 million lbs (18 189 tonnes) of snow crab this year, plus one million lbs (454 tonnes) of Tanner crab. The red king crab fishery started on 1 February 2021, while the golden king crab fishery started on 17 February 2021. Opilio landings in Alaska were off to a slow start, though. As of the beginning of March, about 7 711 tonnes were landed, but the sizes were small. The Tanner crab fishery in Alaska was slow, too, with about 34 percent of the quota harvested by early March. But demand is good and prices very high. Demand for snow crab in the United States of America has been very strong, and prices have soared as a result. Retail sales have been strong, while the restaurant industry has been extremely bleak because of the pandemic.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced in late March that the 2021 quota for snow crab in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was increased by 29 percent compared to 2020, from 29 551 tonnes to 38 186 tonnes. The season runs from early/mid-April until June or July. In the province of New Brunswick, the outlook is less rosy. The snow crab fishery in the southern Gulf of Saint Lawrence started in early April, with ice still on the water. The quota was reduced by 26 percent compared to 2020, to 21 128 tonnes. The early start (a month earlier than in 2020) was part of an effort to avoid limitations due to the presence of the North Atlantic right whales. The fishery will last until late June, but may be closed earlier if the right whales appear. The Oregon Dungeness crab fishery opened on 16 February 2021. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), all crabs caught in the area north of Cape Falcon need to have their viscera removed and checked to ensure that crab put on the market are safe to consume. While high levels of the marine biotoxin domoic acid had been registered further north, in the state of Washington, the levels observed in Oregon have been below the alert levels.

International trade

Total global imports of crab (all types) declined by 9.8 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. However, US imports increased by 9.5 percent to 98 009 tonnes, while Chinese imports dropped by 19.1 percent to 46 714 tonnes. The COVID-19 pandemic must be blamed for at least part of this change, as China closed its borders to crab imports for part of the year. Total crab exports from the Russian Federation in 2020 rose by 9 percent compared to 2019, to USD 1.59 billion. Live crab exports rose by 20 percent to USD 652 million, with China and the Republic of Korea each accounting for just under 50 percent of the total. Russian exports of frozen crab increased by a mere 2 percent to USD 936 million, with the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea being the main markets. In the first quarter of 2021, Norwegian king crab exports amounted to 1 777 tonnes, double the corresponding 2020 figure.

Prices went down by 2 percent to USD 4.10 per kg. Export value soared to USD 52 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a first quarter. Export shipments were particularly strong to Hong Kong SAR, the Republic of Korea, the United States of America, and Viet Nam. US imports of crab (all types) rose by 7.3 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. All major suppliers (Canada, the Russian Federation, Indonesia) registered an increase in shipments. Imports of red king crab were up by 17 percent, while imports of blue king crab were down by 41 percent. Retail seafood sales increased by an impressive 28 percent in the United States of America in 2020, to USD 16.6 billion. The crab sector did particularly well, with sales increasing by 63 percent compared to 2019, to USD 1.3 billion. US importers of red and blue swimming crab are under pressure to obtain enough supplies. Production in Indonesia, the major supplier, is slow and supplies are short, with prices predictably climbing. However, the rising prices are not believed to be a result of increasing demand but rather of very tight supplies. US imports of blue swimming crab were down by 9 percent in 2020 compared with 2019. All of the decline was thought to be due to lack of supplies. Indonesia supplied over 50 percent of swimming crab imports into the United States of America in 2020. Venezuela, the Philippines, China and Viet Nam were the other major suppliers.

Outlook

The record high king crab prices do not seem to drive customers away. Prices for 9 – 12 count leg and claw crab have been selling for as much as USD 28 per lb, but customers are still buying. Apparently, consumers are not used to buying king crab through the retail sector, but rather through restaurants, where the end price is much higher than in retail stores. Menu prices for king crab legs at restaurants would be as high as USD 80 per lb. Compared to that, a retail price of USD 28 per lb appears as a bargain. The shift to home consumption of crabs could therefore become a lasting trend, even when the restaurant sector reopens. As a result, prices may continue to climb for some time, in spite of the good supply situation. Overall, 2021 looks to be a very good year for the crab sector, no matter how the COVID-19 pandemic develops.

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