Alaska crabbers get creative with pop-up sales, but industry’s fate uncertain

A man with orange waders takes a photo of a man holding a bag of crabs right in between two tubs filled with live crabs
Myoung Kim poses with his just-purchased king crab after asking fisherman Gabriel Prout (right) to take a photo to post on Facebook. Before he left, Kim came back to buy two more crabs to freeze for Thanksgiving. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

With Alaska’s Bering Sea snow crab fishery shut down for the second year in a row, crabbers are having to make tough decisions and find creative ways to earn income, like selling direct to Anchorage consumers, sometimes in parking lots.

A hand-painted sign on an Anchorage street corner and a hanging sign with the words “Live Alaskan King Crab” were enough to draw in customers to a Spenard parking lot that had become home to one of the shellfish pop-up sales. The live crab sale was in its fourth day on Nov. 2 and had already sold more than three-quarters of the 700 red king crabs hauled out from the Bering Sea.

Myoung Kim was thrilled to see the sale, which he’d heard about from a friend. As he watched the king crabs crawl around in massive seawater-fed tanks, he said this was a special treat he’d struggled to find in recent years.

“I’ve tried to buy all the time. This is hard to get,” Kim said. “I don’t know who sells live king crab.”

He said it had been three or four years since he last enjoyed the prized shellfish, which he kept trying to convince everyone else to buy.

“I’ve really (been) waiting for this one. It’s different,” Kim said. “It’s sweet, too.”

A man with orange waders and a hoodie hands over a live crab to an old man
Ashlan Prout (left), Gabriel’s brother, hands a live crab to his father, Bill Prout, to place in the tub filled with recirculating seawater. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Kim’s three-year estimation lines up with the last time Bering Sea crabbers were allowed to fish for Alaska red king crab, in 2020. The fishery reopened on Oct. 15, after being closed for two seasons due to low population numbers. And this season was capped at a much lower catch limit than historic averages.

Those massive, beach ball-sized king crab actually only account for a small portion of a typical crabber’s income, with the smaller snow crab normally making up the vast majority of Bering Sea crabbers’ revenue. But that fishery completely closed this year for the second straight season, and the fate of the local industry it supports is uncertain.

In an attempt to make up some lost income, third-generation fisherman Gabriel Prout brought red king crab to Anchorage to sell directly to consumers.

He hauled a portion of this year’s catch from his homeport in Kodiak to Seward, then trucked the crab, along with some fresh seawater, north to Anchorage. That extra fuel and equipment weren’t cheap, but Prout said it was profitable.

“Even with all those costs added up, it still pencils out,” Prout said. “And I’m really happy to be able to make this available to the local Anchorage area.”

Part of the reason the trip penciled out is the wide margin between the price the seafood processing companies are paying and what Prout could charge Anchorage customers.

Prout sold the live crab in Anchorage for about $25 per pound, roughly three times the processor’s rate, but still less than what most grocery stores would charge, he said.

a crab in a tub tries to crawl out and escape
One crab tries to make an escape, to no avail. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Even with this creative effort to earn extra money, though, his family crabbing business and others like it are struggling to stay afloat. The limited amount of king crab they could catch this year helps, but their real cash cow is snow crab, accounting for up to 90% of their income.

The Bering Sea snow crab population crashed suddenly two years ago. Scientists now say that was due to a warming water event linked to climate change. Those historically low numbers forced a complete closure of the fishery last year, which has been devastating to the Alaska crabbers.

Prout said he has some savings to get by with, but those won’t last long.

“I mean, fishing is a lucrative business, but the boats themselves are also incredibly expensive to maintain,” he said. “So any savings that you do have, you really pour all that back into the boat, back into the maintenance, back into the shipyards, to paying your crews well. The savings that you did have in the good years are quickly running out.”

Some boats are struggling to pay off loans they took out when the crab stocks were strong, he said.

“There’s a few boats that are facing bank issues. A lot of fishermen, you know, bought into the resource when it was predicted to be extremely healthy,” Prout said. “Now the banks are trying to figure out ways to collect on that revenue that’s just not there because the seasons are closed.”

Ethan Nichols monitors the Bering Sea crab fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said the total allowable catch for this year’s red king crab was the smallest ever at about 2.1 million pounds. That’s roughly 10 times less than the historic average of 20 million pounds. But that still paled in comparison to a typical snow crab season, which pulled in upwards of 40 million pounds in recent years and more than 300 million pounds back in the 1990s.

“The red king crab fishery, you know, a lot of vessels might just have one or maybe two trips for the season, compared to the snow crab fishery, (which is) much larger,” Nichols said. “They might be steadily fishing snow crab for several months and making multiple, multiple deliveries.”

And the prospects for the two fisheries are grim, Nichols said. They’re not seeing the juvenile red king crab needed to support population growth. The snow crab population has seen a modest increase in juvenile males, he said, but because of the time they take to mature, that fishery probably won’t open again any time soon.

“So it’s likely that it will take several more years until the small crabs that are currently in the population reach the size crab that the fishery really targets,” Nichols said.

Whether Alaska’s crabbers can get creative enough to get by that long without snow crab is an open question.

“Having a lack of snow crab for the second year in a row, it does make things very, very difficult,” Prout said. “It really did put the fleet in financial dire straits.”

a portrait of a man outside

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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