Casinos in Southern US scrambling for Alaska crab

Published on
January 26, 2017

A scarcity of Alaska snow crab has global buyers scrambling, with one of the largest group of buyers – casinos in Mississippi – some of the most impacted by the shortfall.

Adding another wound to an already damaged season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently slashed the total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2016-2017 season by 50 percent to 21.57 million pounds – the fishery’s lowest in 45 years. And last week, the Alaska Board of Fisheries voted to cancel this year’s tanner (Bairdi) crab season – worth USD 50 million (EUR 46.5 million) in mid-January. AFDFG said the opening stock was around two million pounds short.

The Tanner crab season would have provided an option for buyers who traditionally focus on snow crab, according to Ed Layton, vice president of food and beverage and hotel operations at Island View Casino Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi.

“We just got done with [frozen] snow crab, and there is a shortage out there. There is an uncertainty in the marketplace, and we are trying to find them from any source now,” Layton said.

The casino bought USD 1 million (EUR 942,995) worth of snow crab last year for its buffet restaurant and several other restaurants it runs.

While Island View was paying around USD 6 (EUR 5.66) per pound for frozen snow crab earlier in the season, the price jumped to USD 8 (EUR 7.54) per pound in December.

The casino’s primary snow crab supplier is distributor US Foods, but Island View is calling many other distributors in an effort to find crab, Layton said. It will continue to offer snow crab as long as possible, but eventually may have to promote other types of seafood, such as steamed Gulf shrimp.

Already, the casino powers through 300 pounds of steamed Gulf shrimp daily at its buffet restaurant alone, and also serves the shrimp throughout its other restaurants.

Other Biloxi casinos have cut the number of nights they offer crab legs and some have raised their buffet price to compensate for the higher Alaskan crab price. Layton hopes that Island View can hold off on raising its buffet price, but says it may be forced to do so.

“Most casinos at one time offered Alaskan crab legs seven nights a week. Now, some are going to the weekend only or three days a week,” Layton said. “We offer them seven nights a week – we hope it gives customers incentive to come down here.”

In addition to stocking snow crab steadily, Island View is also differentiating itself from the competition by promoting wild red shrimp from Argentina in its Beach Blvd. Steamer restaurant, which features seafood steam pots, crab cakes, oysters and other seafood dishes.

“We have had really good luck with the shrimp – they have a sustainable product there,” Layton said, noting that the restaurant uses around 400 pounds a week, primarily serving it with drawn butter. The Argentine shrimp price has also stayed steady at USD 4 (EUR 3.77) per pound for “nice-sized” shrimp, according to Layton.

Still, catfish is Island View’s most popular seafood item – it goes through around 600 pounds daily of the farmed fish from north Mississippi.

“It follows the trend I see across the country: people are cooking this low-country style of food,” Layton said. Plus, catfish is back to a “good price,” allowing the casino to serve more of the popular fish.

Island View also goes through around 200 cases of oysters per week, thanks to the surging popularity of the shellfish among Americans.

“I think customers are getting comfortable with the fact that oysters have gotten safe to eat again,” Layton said.
Char-grilled and baked preparations, such as Oysters Rockefeller, are particularly popular, accounting for around 40 percent of the oyster dishes Island View’s restaurants serve.

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