Inside Kodiak's crab standoff
Crews from more than 100 boats say they’re staying at the docks until processors offer them a higher price, but experts say they are facing global market forces unlikely to budge
February 2, 2023
After the heat wave-induced collapse of the Bering Sea snow crab fishery, some fishermen were looking, with hope, at the upcoming tanner crab harvest out of Kodiak.
The nearly 6-million-pound quota was the highest in decades. And some people spent more than $100,000 to buy a permit to fish this year, said Kevin Abena, one of the leaders of the Kodiak Crab Alliance Cooperative.
But fishermen’s hopes for a banner season are now in limbo, as the 130 boats in the Kodiak tanner crab fleet are on strike — holding out for higher prices from the seafood processors that typically buy, package and resell their catch.
The strike effort has drawn statewide attention and support from organized labor groups like Alaska’s biggest teachers union. But processors and industry experts say the fishermen are fighting larger market forces that make it unlikely they’ll get much more than the $3.25 a pound that Kodiak-based plants have already offered — less than half than last year’s $8 a pound price.
“I feel for these guys,” said Tom Enlow, an executive at another seafood processing company, Unisea, which operates a huge plant in Dutch Harbor, hundreds of miles west of Kodiak. “Three-twenty-five, that’s hard to accept. But that’s the reality of the markets: Processors are going to go backwards if they pay any more than that.”
Representatives for the four companies that process crab in Kodiak — Pacific Seafood, North Pacific Seafoods, Trident Seafoods and OBI Seafoods — either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Abena, in a phone interview, said he thinks processors are accepting lower prices from Japanese buyers than they could get if they invested in better marketing in the U.S. Fishermen, he added, are not expecting to earn as much money as last year, but they also think the crab is worth significantly more than processors are offering.
Some of the boats in the tanner crab fleet, Abena said, could make money at $3.25 a pound. But none have broken ranks and started fishing, and they’re not close to that point yet, either, he said.
“We’re solid. We’re unified,” Abena said. “Every day we wait, the more valuable these crab get in the minds of fishermen.”
But market dynamics have drastically devalued this year’s tanner crab catch, experts said.
While domestically, pandemic stimulus helped fuel American demand, those checks have now stopped coming, and inflation is leaving consumers with less disposable income, said John Sackton, a longtime seafood industry analyst and publisher.
At a global level, according to Enlow, buyers had also been wary of crab from Russia last year, as the country launched its war in Ukraine. But now, buyers have gotten more comfortable with sourcing Russian seafood, he said, and there’s ample additional crab supply coming from Canada.
That’s making processors and buyers wary, because some of the crab they bought at high prices last year is still sitting unpurchased, in freezers.
“In a lot of years, the processors, to support the boats, would just buy it anyway, and they would take on some of that risk because they want to see a healthy fleet. But they lost so much money with crab this year, they’re just saying, ‘Well, screw it — I can’t lose money on this again,’” said Sackton. A year ago, he added, “crab stopped selling, basically, at the retail level. And it just took a while for that knowledge to catch up with the market.”
Kodiak crab fishermen argue that the Gulf of Alaska tanner crab they catch should command premium prices, because it’s larger than snow crab, and has a better taste.
“This is a particular product the Japanese want, and they love,” Abena said. “We have processors here with guaranteed sales to them right now. They want this crab, and they understand the value of this crab.”
Inconsistent quotas’ effect
But Sackton and Enlow said the seafood industry has been hesitant to invest in marketing Alaska tanner crab — and distinguishing it from snow crab — because quota numbers are so inconsistent.
While this year’s Kodiak tanner crab quota is the biggest since 1986, last year’s was sharply less, at 1.1 million pounds. The year before, the fishery was closed entirely; it was also closed between 2014 and 2017, and between 2018 and 2020, quotas were less than 1 million pounds.
“In order to have a market, you have to have product. And you can’t get people to invest in sales and promotion and getting your highest possible value if one year you’re here, next year you’re not,” said Sackton. “The history of the tanner crab, it’s been very episodic. Some years there’s a fishery, some years there isn’t. So, it’s not possible for it to get traction.”
Enlow, from the Dutch Harbor processor, said he doesn’t see the price getting much higher than $3.25 a pound. His company had been paying $3.50, but it’s since reduced that to $3.
“My recommendation to the guys out in Kodiak is, maybe they’ve got to swallow their pride and go fishing,” Enlow said. “Because that might be the best price they’re going to see.”
But the fishermen don’t sound like they’re close to budging. Another veteran crab fisherman, Luke Lester, said he doesn’t think the fleet will be stuck at the docks “forever,” but, he added, “every little bit matters.”
At $3.25 a pound, he said, “I think you could make money — but it’s just that we’re still getting screwed.”
“We feel like we’re leaving more on the table than we’re giving the processors and fish buyers,” he said. “Somebody else is making the money.”
This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from journalist Nathaniel Herz