DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska – The Bering Sea's red king crab season kicked off on Sunday, but there's just one thing missing: the crab fishermen.
The majority of the crab fleet is still tied up in the port of Dutch Harbor, refusing to fish for a third consecutive day, while price negotiations with seafood processing companies remain at an impasse.
As of Tuesday afternoon, only three processors — Alyeska Seafoods, Westward Seafoods and Ocean Beauty Seafoods — have agreed to pay a price that the crab harvesting cooperatives that represent the fishermen consider acceptable, according to co-op representatives.
Crab boats contracted to those processors are out fishing now, but the majority of the fleet is still at the docks, awaiting a better offer.
Greg White, who is representing the harvesting co-ops in the negotiations, said that some of the prices processors were suggesting Tuesday amounted to 33 percent of last year's price.
"We think that's a much more significant drop than there actually was in the marketplace, and we view this as an abuse of the rationalization process," White said, referring to the crab rationalization program implemented in the Bering Sea by fisheries regulators last season.
The program guarantees processing companies shares of the king crab harvest, a provision that many fishermen say weakens their bargaining power.
Representatives of the processing companies still in negotiation were either unavailable or unwilling to comment Tuesday afternoon.
Dutch Harbor is the largest seafood port by volume in the United States, and the epicenter of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery, which opened at noon on Sunday. But most of the 89 boats registered to fish king crab this season remained in the port after the fishery opened, on account of both bad weather and price disagreements.
By Monday the skies and seas had cleared, but continued price haggling kept most of the crab fleet in Dutch Harbor.
"The storm's passed, the weather's broken," said Ian Pitzman, the skipper of the Jennifer A., a Ketchikan-based crab boat that was tied up in the harbor Monday afternoon. "But we're waiting for the price to break as well."
The Jennifer A. is represented by the Cascade Locks, Ore.-based Bering Sea Crab Cooperative, which is one of 12 harvesting cooperatives involved in negotiations.
Alyeska, Westward and Ocean Beauty are offering $3.65 a pound for king crab, about a dollar less than last season's final price. Seafood analysts attribute the drop to an explosion in sales of cheaper Russian crab to the United States.
Russian king crab exports to the U.S. more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Foreign Trade Division. An upswing in large king crab from Russian fisheries in the Barents Sea in the past year has further battered the market for the Alaskan product.
"This Russian crab is flooding the market," said John Sackton, founder of the online trade publication Seafood.com. "Until the market absorbs a lot of [it], I don't see things turning around that quickly."