Standoff in Alaska as crabbers, cod fishermen strike for better prices

Published on
January 26, 2023
Tanner crabbing in Stephens Passage, Southeast Alaska.

Crabbers in Alaska are striking for higher ex-vessel prices, following a successful negotiation by the state’s cod fishermen.

Alaska’s 2023 Kodiak and Westward Region tanner (bairdi) crab season, with a total allowable catch of 7.3 million pounds, officially opened 15 January, but Kodiak’s fishermen opted to stay tied to the docks in protest of the USD 2.50 (EUR 2.29) per pound processors initially offered on 17 January. Processors upped their offer to USD 3.25 (EUR 2.97) on 24 January but Kodiak’s fleet voted it down as well.

“We all thought we were going to be fishing, but we all understand why we aren’t fishing,” Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative Secretary Kevin Abena told KMXT. “So, we’re just waiting.”

Abena said his group, representing 120 of the 130 vessels registered in the fishery, is pushing for a profit-sharing agreement or more than USD 3.25 per pound. Last year, the fishery landed 1.8 million pounds of tanner crab at a price of USD 8.50 (EUR 7.78) per pound. With a total allowable catch of 5.8 million pounds, this year’s tanner crab season in Kodiak is set to be the largest since 1986 and is expected to fill an important gap in the market created by the current U.S. ban on Russian imports.

“The amount that we stand to gain, everybody understands it is much greater than what we’re losing right now for standing down for a day, two, three, four – a week – whatever it takes,” he said.

The 65 registered crab-fishing vessels in Chignik and the South Peninsula of Alaska began their season after coming to an agreement with Peter Pan Seafoods on a price of USD 3.25 plus profit-sharing based off the wholesale price of the catch.

Abena said his group is negotiating with Peter Pan in King Cove, Westward Seafoods in Dutch Harbor, and UniSea in Dutch Harbor to try to get the price higher. In the meantime, he said, while waiting for the impasse to be resolved, some vessels in the Kodiak fleet might join the ongoing cod season, which began 1 January. Kodiak’s tanner crab fishery closes at the end of March, and Abena said the resolve remained for the fleet to remain tied up.

“They 100 percent have the mentality that as soon as they get word that we’re going to settle on something that they are going to stack their gear, bring it back to town and put the other pots on and go out tanner crabbing,” Abena said. “Honestly, across the country in the fishing industry, it’s so hard to keep something like this together. I think it only happens when such a bad initial price is started out with from processors, and in our situation from four separate processors.”

Pacific Seafood Processors Association, which is not involved in negotiating or setting prices, issued a statement earlier this week seeking to explain the processors’ offer.

"It seems helpful to understand that there is a larger global market for crab that the fishery is subject to," PSPA Vice President Nicole Kimball said. "Kodiak processors are not the final market for crab and Alaska makes up less than 1 percent of the global supply. It's been reported for a while that there is a large carryover inventory from last year, and there is more crab coming into the market shortly from other countries like Russia and Canada, that compete with Alaska crab, which slows demand. Alaska seafood processors are dependent on harvesters and the economic uncertainty affects all of us."

Similarly to the tanner crabbers, Alaska’s cod fishermen also held out against low prices this year. The  approximately 30 boats belonging to the Bering Sea cod fishery were offered USD 0.40 (EUR ) per pound by Trident Seafood, but held off fishing until 4 January, when processors agreed to up their offer to USD 0.46 (EUR ) per pound, plus volume incentives. Chris Studeman, captain and co-owner of the 104-foot fishing vessel Kevleen K, told KUCB the increased offer will make a difference for the fleet, which is facing higher costs for fuel, parts, and labor.

“The cannery has kind of always held all the power because they put out a price and everybody goes fishing, and the only way we can stop that is to get together as a group, as a whole,” he said. “Because we’re able to get the small boats and the big boats both to be on the same page, I hope in the future that we can get organized the first week of December and then be talking with the processors before we even attempt to come up. And hopefully we can have a price that everybody can agree on before we even leave our homes.”

This season, larger boats face a total allowable catch of 5,168 MT in their “A” season, while boats under 60 feet have a quota of 2,413 MT, plus a reallocation from the jig-gear sector.

Tom Enlow, the president and CEO of UniSea, a seafood processor based in Unalaska, said his company’s processing costs have gone up 14 percent this year.

“The market’s not the same as it was a year ago,” Enlow said. “So if we pay fishermen the price that we paid a year ago, we’re going to lose money.”

Enlow said he understands fishermen are also facing higher costs and is glad the company could come to an agreement with them.

“It’s just a little bit of us revisiting our calculations and making sure that we can pay the harvesters with what they’d like to get paid, and still make money,” Enlow said.

Along the U.S. West Coast, Dungeness crab fishermen also held out for a price of USD 4.00 to USD 4.75 (EUR 3.66 to EUR 4.35) after the season opened earlier this month. On 13 January, a portion of the fleet broke the strike, ultimately settling for a per-pound price of USD 2.25 (EUR 2.06).

“In this fishery, if one community decides to go, the neighboring communities have no choice but to go,” Rob Seitz, a Dungeness crab fisherman from Astoria, told National Fisherman. “And my neighbors decided to go.”

Dungeness crab fishers could still get higher prices this season, as there has been a trend toward higher ex-vessel prices on the West Coast and Alaska in response to a resurgence in markets following the Covid pandemic and an absence of product coming from the Bering Sea. Thus far in the season, live Dungeness shipped to China has been a price-driver in the U.S. state of Oregon, and frozen sections of tanner crab are likely to find favor among domestic consumers as a replacement for opilio.

In 2021, Dungeness crabbers went fishing at USD 2.75 (EUR 2.52) but live market deliveries destined for China hit near USD 10.00 (EUR 9.16) per pound, bumping the season’s average up to USD 4.96 (EUR 4.54) for the season.

Additional reporting by Charlie Ess/National Fisherman

Photo courtesy of Troy Larson/Shutterstock

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