Russian crab harvesters are looking eagerly at expanding its reach into the US market amid supply shortages of Bering Sea king crab in Alaska.

Earlier this month, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery was cancelled for just the fourth time in its history, a huge blow to one of the most valuable crab harvests in the United States and to the Alaska seafood companies that harvest and trade the species.

King crab stocks on the Russian side, however, have been healthy, and producers there are eager to extend their steady run of export expansion.

“The current king crab prices in the US market are firm, with demand growing,” Alexander Duplyakov, head of Russian Association of the Far Eastern Crab Catchers (AFECC), told IntraFish.

With the significant decrease in landings on the Alaska side, Duplyakov said, "this is making the US market very attractive for Russia’s crabbing sector."

Steady rise

Since 2015, Russia’s crab supplies to the Unites States have been steadily increasing and jumping by more than 30 percent over the last five years, AFECC said.

In the first half of 2021 alone, Russia exported 7,300 metric tons of king crab -- red, blue and golden king crab -- to the US market. The country’s exports for the entire 2020 of the species amounted to 11,500 metric tons, a slight rise over the 11,200 metric tons in 2019, and an 18.6 percent rise over the 9,700 metric tons in 2018.

In 2020, Russia’s overall exports of crab products to the United States, mostly cooked frozen-at-sea clusters, reached 31,150 metric tons, according to AFECC.

“It is always rather difficult to give any estimates regarding crab market, but not big catches of the Alaska Bering Sea crab allows us to expect prices climbing further in the US market, which makes Russian crab supplies lucrative,” Duplyakov added.

Russian crab harvesting giant Russian Crab Group -- the largest exporter of crab products in Russia’s Far East -- is also casting a closer eye on the US market.

“It is very important for us, especially for cooked and frozen products,” Vladimir Touloupov, advisor to the general director for Commercial Activities and Marketing at Russian Crab Group, told IntraFish.

“Now, we can see forecasts for a reduction in crab supplies to the United States, which spurs our interest in shipments to this country."

Moreover, the company positively estimates the prospects for long-term cooperation with US buyers, regardless of the situation with crab catches in Alaska.

Buyers have embraced the Russian Crab brand, Touloupov said, and demand for the US for 2022 product is already twice the company's supply capacity.

That's on top of demand in other markets, he added.

“Japanese buyers have already identified their positions for 2022,” said Touloupov. “We are also having promising partners in Europe. In addition to that, prices for live crab in China and South Korea keep firming up.”

Foreign crab markets dominate

According to the Accounts Chamber of Russia, only 2.5 percent of Russia’ total crab harvest are landed to the domestic market, with the remainder being annually exported, mainly to the US and the countries of the Asian-Pacific region.

This trend was not broken even by the COVID-19-related restrictions, when many Asian countries, primarily China, seriously limited the seafood import, Russian auditors said.

It is worth noting that some Russian crabbing companies took into account new circumstances and kicked off diversifying their supplies abroad. Russian crab harvesting giant Russian Crab Group made its first blue crab shipment to Spain this year sending 32 metric tons to the country.

Russia’s Far eastern crab fishing quota for 2021 was set at 75,643 metric tons, with the total red king crab quota amounting to 15,274 metric tons.

In addition to Far East, Russia’s crab fishery includes the Barents Sea, where the resource is split between red king crab with the 2021 quota set at 10,940 metric tons and opilio snow crab of 13,250 metric tons.

Alaska challenges

The Bristol Bay red king crab total allowable catch (TAC) has been steadily declining over the past decade as regulators reacted to declining biomass levels.

A decade ago, regulators set the TAC at 6,730 metric tons, or just under 14.8 million pounds. But by the 2017-2018 season that had slid to around half that level.

Last season fishermen from 47 vessels harvested the full 1,201 metric ton (2.6 million pound) TAC.

According to NMFS, 8.5 million pounds of king crab species were landed across the state in 2020, including Bristol Bay red king, golden king and blue king crab, worth just over $50 million (€42 million).

Just five years prior, the king crab catch and value were twice as high, despite ex-vessel prices being more than 70 percent lower than last year.

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