The Alaskan king crab festival has begun. But buyer beware: Not all of the sweet bounty is imported from Alaska's well-managed fishery. Some of it comes through a circuitous route from Russia, an unsustainable market rife with illegal harvesting and poaching.
Mike Erickson, president of Alaska Glacier Seafood Co., said by phone from Juneau that in years past, his company has been a major supplier. "But our resource is dwindling. It has to be coming from somewhere."
The Alaskan king crab festival is one of the most anticipated food events in the Lower Mainland. It's an annual event that's been going on since the late 1980s. The monstrous catch is shipped live to Vancouver and is offered in two-, three-, and four-course feasts, at substantially reduced prices, by every reputable Chinese seafood restaurant with holding tanks large enough to keep them.
Sun Sui Wah, the legendary Cantonese banquet-style restaurant on Main Street, was the first to seek out the live, writhing, spiny-knobbed beasts for its newly arrived Hong Kong customers who had become accustomed to the plush texture and sweet flavour of the crab's fresh flesh (which can become bland and stringy when frozen).
Connections were made, a steady supply was established, competition heated up and now there are no decent Cantonese restaurants in Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond that don't offer fresh Alaskan king at this time of year.
At one point, almost all of the live crab came from Alaska.
"We started shipping live crab to Vancouver in the mid-nineties," Mr. Erickson said. "It was very reasonable to buy then. It sold for about $8 a pound in restaurants. But then it just spread. Everyone wanted them."
This year, the prices range from $19.99 to $29.80 a pound.
"Up to about 2011, we were supplying about 50 per cent of the demand," Mr. Erickson said. "Now, I'm not so sure. We're seeing some poor catch this year – about half from last year. That's a strong indicator that we have biomass issues going on. To preserve the stocks, the fishery will probably be shut down next week."
Which means if you're eating king crab two weeks from now it definitely won't be coming from Alaska.
There are five or six crab brokers in Vancouver. Each has its own source. None want to be identified or speak on record. Thus, it's almost impossible to know what you're really eating.
Russian king crab is always available in Vancouver. And it is the same species – golden king crab, at this time of year – that is currently being caught in southeastern Alaska. It's delicious. I ate some this week. But if you want dine with a clear conscience, you should know that it is not recommended by the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program or its U.S. counterpart at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Why is Russian king crab bad to consume? About 50 per cent of the Russian crab harvest in recent years has been illegal, according to data compiled by the McDowell Group, a research-consulting firm in Alaska. Export data for Russian king crab, when compared with the total catch quota for each species, show the numbers far outweighed its legal harvest.
The illegal fishing trade has prompted a controversial Russian-Japanese treaty that has been signed, but not ratified. As the talks continue, Russia has boosted its legal harvest into an unsustainable stratosphere. The total allowable catch (TAC) for the country's red king crab fisheries in 2014, for example, is 24.3 million pounds – a 91 per cent increase over last year. Its overall TAC, which includes red, blue and golden crab, has increased 39 per cent.
In Russia's Barents Sea, as in Norway, king crab is a non-native, introduced stock that spread quickly and has become an invasive species and is seriously affecting the ecosystem.
And the industry is shady. "In Russia, there are a lot of pirate fishing vessels," Mike McDermid, former manager of the Ocean Wise program, explained. "You don't know what's happening in the middle of the ocean. The crab changes hands so many times, it's very challenging to know what is a good choice and what isn't."
So go ahead and feast on crab if you will. I did. But do realize, as is so often the case with things that seem too good to be true, this bounty comes with a catch.