Seafood’s royalty struggles in a tight market

Published on
August 22, 2012

The unique qualities of king crab — its size, flavor and presence on the plate — keep consumers coming back for more, even when supply is tight and prices rise.

In 2011, the total allowable catch for Alaska king crab was reduced by 28 percent over the previous year. Not surprisingly, wholesale prices topped USD 18 a pound.

The lower quota for king crab, says Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, was “most likely due to natural variability in the ocean environment and the cyclical nature of crab fishing.” As a precaution, he says, the quota was lowered to 16.2 million pounds.

“Alaska king crab is a highly sought after signature delicacy around the world, but the Asian market continues to be particularly important for export,” says Fick. In 2011, 56 percent of exports went to Asian markets, while Europe took 20 percent and the remaining 24 percent was sold globally, he says, but especially to Canada and the Caribbean.

“It has been an interesting year with the decrease in the quota and the rise in price,” says Steve Lahaie, partner at Shaw’s Crab House, which has restaurants in Chicago and Schaumburg, Ill.

Prices for red king crab rose about 6 percent, he says, “so we had to strategically figure out how to deal with it.” Historically, says Lahaie, Shaw’s only offered red king crab, but because of the higher price and a desire to still offer crab to customers, the restaurant added Alaska golden king crab to the menu. A pound of golden king sells for USD 46.99, while 18 ounces of red king costs diners USD 65.99.

“We are giving our guests a choice,” says Lahaie, and they are purchasing golden over red by a 2-to-1 margin. The golden “is very good quality, though smaller than red king crab,” he explains. At the suburban Shaw’s golden was the only offering initially, but diners there wanted to experience red king crab, too.

Even with the higher price, king crab is the restaurant’s No. 1 seller, says Lahaie, and the amount of crab sold has risen by 9 percent this year, while the customer count is up 3 percent. In addition to selling king on its own, the crab is part of the sushi menu and teamed with lobster as the Surf and Turf with a 6-ounce filet.

Lahaie says king crab will always be featured: “It’s a valued item, and it’s part of our name.”

While Shaw’s has had continued success with red and golden king crab, some suppliers have seen demand fall. Gerry Brajcich, head of purchasing and sales for the West Coast office of Sea Trek Enterprises, an East Greenwich, R.I., supplier, says “prices got so high last year, it put a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.”

As a result, he says, red king crab came off of some menus or was replaced by other species like Jonah crabs. Brajcich deals in king from Alaska and Russia, but notes that the majority of Alaska’s catch goes to Japan and big retail players.

King crab took off in the marketplace about five or six years ago, he says, when it was far more affordable so many more people were able to experience it and create a following for it. A glut of product from Russia allowed retailers to offer king crab legs at around USD 10 a pound.

Brajcich sees it as a special product that isn’t easily replaced. “You can just start out with the name,” he says, and a taste profile that is richer and meatier than other crab species. Add the popularity of the Discovery Channel’s “The Deadliest Catch” television show, which showcases the risks of catching king crab, and you understand its appeal.

“For taste and presence, it can’t be beat. It looks good on a plate and any time king crab goes by, heads turn,” he says.

Marty Greenwald, king crab category manager for Orion Seafood International in Portsmouth, N.H., also witnessed a decline in sales and promotions for king crab as prices rose last year.

“It’s like re-inventing the wheel,” he says, about getting buyers to go back to king crab. When crab prices topped those for lobster, he says, some restaurants made the switch to other seafood.

Red and brown king crab prices have risen with the quota reduction, and the clamp-down on illegal harvesting in Russia, he says. As an alternative, Orion is some business with king crab from Argentina, which is smaller and has a duller-colored red shell. “The taste profile is similar,” he says, and it is finding its way onto buffets. “It presents well,” he adds, and is attractive at $2 to $3 a pound less than other king options.

“When prices start coming down and [seafood buyers] can make their price points, you’ll start to see movement in the category,” says Greenwald. Like Brajcich, Greenwald sees something different about king crab because of the visual presentation it makes and “the mystique around ‘The Deadliest Catch.’ Even at higher prices, people understood what it took to catch that crab.”

Instead of eliminating it altogether, some retailers are sizing down, he says, or they are offering clusters instead of legs and claws. There is greater value in selling the clusters, he says, “because as soon as you put a knife to it, the cost goes up.”

Even though quotas have not yet been set for 2012, there is some optimism looking forward. “From what the fishermen are telling me about last season,” says ASMI’s Fick, “the fishing was strong with high catch numbers per pot. There also appeared to be solid numbers of smaller crab out there that will be harvestable over the next few years.”

He says he is hoping that crab biologists are seeing similar results in their surveys “because that bodes well for the years to come.”

Brajcich says currently there is adequate supply of king “and demand is low, at best.” He says prices could go lower because there is crab available and for seafood in general, “everything seems to be stagnant.”

Fick says ASMI hasn’t been promoting kings recently, but it may revisit that later on.

“We are fortunate that king crab really sells itself nowadays, which has allowed us to focus a bit on some other shellfish, like snow crab, that are not as well known. For many families,” he says, “king crab is an important part of holiday celebrations, so while we have no promotions planned at this time, we may see some planned toward the end of the year.”

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