High grading dominated the fishery last year when nearly 700,000 legal sized "dirty" crabs (about four million pounds) were tossed overboard by crabbers being squeezed by falling wholesale prices and rising fuel costs. Assuming that 20 percent of the discarded crabs died, managers responded by deducting nearly 4.6 percent off the top of this year's catch quota, dropping it to approximately 14 million pounds.
Crabbers signed pledges to do better this year and by all accounts, they did.
"We're still gathering observer data but it appears that high grading has not been a problem," said Denby Lloyd, director of the state commercial fisheries division. He believes there are several reasons for the turn around. "Industry is on its best behavior after what happened last year. Also, the abundance of old shell crab is far less than last year. And the fact that most processors are paying a single price for all crab has also reduced discards. The combined effect has resulted in some good retention rates," Lloyd said.
The number of old shell crabs was estimated at just 16 percent of the legal male population this season compared to about 42 percent last year, according to regional management biologist Forrest Bowers at the state Dept. of Fish and Game office in Dutch Harbor.
"Speaking with observers and vessel operators, I didn't hear any reports of wide spread discarding like I did at this time last year. We also had a good effort by the industry prior to the season to come up with a voluntary plan to retain all the legal males they caught," Bowers added.
Ultimately, the crab fleet and processors deserve the credit, said Steve Minor, chairman of the Pacific Northwest Crab Industry Advisory Committee.
"I can't think of any other instance where an industry has been able to move so quickly from one season to the next to impose voluntary measures - from sharing information about crab grounds to avoid to nearly 100 percent agreement on full retention. And one of the most important things, nearly all processors agreed on establishing a single price to remove the economic incentives for high grading," Minor said. He also credited the new quota share management plan for "providing the tools to better manage the fishery, which allowed for the coordinated response from industry to eliminate this problem."
A fleet of 81 vessels participated in the Bering Sea king crab fishery which opened on October 15. Average dock prices ranged from $3.00 - $3.50 per pound, down one dollar from last year. Catch rates were about 33 crabs per pot, the highest since the 1980's. Denby Lloyd said surveys indicate good recruitment of younger crab coming into the fishery.
ASMI takes aim at organic
A nationwide survey aims to find out how much value consumers place on the term "organic" when they're making seafood purchases, and if it draws shoppers away from wild salmon.
"The term 'organic' can be applied to some farmed salmon, but not to wild fish. It's been a galloping segment of the retail grocery market for quite some time and that's why so many people have been trying to capitalize on it. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for something labeled organic. Our purpose is to find out what attributes they associate with the word," said Laura Fleming, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.
The consumer responses will help ASMI refine its messages to targeted customers as it expands into more national advertising venues, including magazines and cable television's popular Food Network.
"We want to make sure we are striking deep into the hearts and minds of the consumers who buy Alaska seafood. Those are people who are a little better educated and well healed, and have more disposable income. It's the 34 to 54 age group and skewed towards females because women are still doing more of the buying," Fleming explained.
She added that ASMI will stick with its key messages of wild, natural and sustainable seafood for which customers are also willing to pay a premium.
"Alaska seafood has a lot of equity out there. The most recent national surveys show it is ranked second among the most popular food brands on the menus of the top 500 restaurant chains in the country," Fleming said. Results of the "organic" consumer survey will be unveiled in February.
As part of an ongoing battle against invading swarms of giant jellyfish, students from Obama Fisheries High School in Japan's Fukui prefecture have developed a method for converting the creatures into a powder. A local company uses the ingredient to make souvenir cookies, which are said to have a "superbly textured sweetness nicely complemented by the bitter, salty flavor of jellyfish."
According to the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, huge Echizen kurage (Nomura's jellyfish) invade the Sea of Japan each autmun, seriously disrupting fishing operations. The giant jellyfish can grow up to six feet wide and weigh up to 450 pounds each. See the jellyfish cookies at www.pinktentacle.com.