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From Deadliest Catch to Sustainable Catch

Red crab

Red crab. ©Dan Kauffman/VASG

Red crab

Red crab. ©Dan Kauffman/VASG

Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 40, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2008
By Phil Marsosudiro

Captain Jon Williams is no stranger to risk. He spent ten years on the Bering Strait as a captain on king crab and snow crab vessels, the likes of which are now featured on television’s Deadliest Catch. After that, he took a chance in starting an east coast crabbing company—running ships, crew, and cargo from North Carolina to Maine. In his latest venture, he’s set up shop in Virginia, where he hopes to create a new market for sustainably harvested red crab.

Since 1996, Williams and his Benthic Fishing Corp. have made a business out of capturing red crab at Norfolk Canyon off the mid-Atlantic shoreline. But until recently, few Virginians had heard of the red crab, in part because no one was landing them here. Instead, Williams and his boats would take their catch directly to Massachusetts. From there, most of their crabs would proceed to Canadian processing houses and eventual sale to Red Lobster as “generic crab meat.”

“Red crab is a deep water crab,” explains Williams, which means that no one catches red crabs unless they’re really trying. Most red crabs are harvested off the continental shelf, between 1,200 and 2,400 feet deep, and it’s not the kind of fishery that a small crab operation is equipped to harvest.

The generic crab market has always been ready to purchase Williams’ catch from the relatively modest red crab fishery, but by 2005, it became clear that his longtime business model wasn’t working out. “Steaming three hundred miles back and forth from Virginia to Massachusetts was already costing us money in lost fishing time. But with added pressure from rising fuel costs, we had to come up with a new plan.” So in November 2006, Williams started landing his crab at Newport News with plans to transport everything by truck at a modestly better cost. That’s when Virginians started noticing the red crab.

Virginia Meets Its Own Red Crab
Williams recalls the early encounters between Virginians and the unfamiliar animal caught off their own coast. “We got a lot of interest when we started coming in with seventy-five thousand pounds of a crab that people had never seen. Lots of watermen would hang around, and their first question was always, ‘how do they taste?’”

“As out-of-towners, we wanted to be accepted here, so we gave some away, here and there to guys who unloaded the boats.” They soon learned what Williams had known for years: red crab tastes great, with a sweet flavor and meaty texture. “It quickly got to the point where guys would be down with their coolers and bushel baskets whenever our boat came in. I had to start charging for the crab, but that was no problem. They’d buy three or four hundred pounds at a time.”

These positive encounters made Williams think that there might be an opportunity to move the red crab “up market.” Instead of remaining a low-priced source of generic crabmeat, the red crab might find its own niche among specialty crabs.

Williams then connected with a Newport News distributor to see how the crabs would sell. “We got some newspaper coverage, and many people came by to get two or three pounds because they were curious about the crab they’d never heard of. The next day, they’d come back and say, ‘That’s the best crab I’ve ever eaten.’ And they’d go home with fifty pounds.”

It was one thing to sell a few hundred pounds of crab each weekend; selling seventy-five thousand pounds at a time would be something else. It would take a lot more customer interest and a means to keep the red crabs alive on shore or to process them efficiently into a high-quality product.

Fortunately, nearby partners were easy to find. Williams soon assembled a team of Virginia Sea Grant extension agents from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at Gloucester Point, and Virginia Tech’s Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (VSAREC) in Hampton, along with picking houses and others who would benefit from a successful red crab market.

Crab Science
At VIMS, Bob Fisher was pleased to get a call from Captain Williams. “The red crab is sweeter than the snow crab, with a texture much like the Dungeness,” says Fisher. It’s not a crab that belongs in the generic crab market where the process for extracting the meat destroys much of its flavor. However, there are technical challenges in moving from a primarily machine-produced minced meat market to a higher value hand-picked and live market.

One challenge of taking a deep water crab into the live market is keeping them alive and healthy. “To keep red crab healthy for five or more days in a live market, we have to develop entirely new ways for managing their water chemistry: controlling for temperature, ammonia concentrations, pH, and many other factors,” says Fisher. He and his team are looking at many options, including limiting how much menhaden bait the crabs eat, while maintaining catch efficiency. “Menhaden is an oily, fatty fish,” says Fisher, “and that makes for high ammonia content when the red crabs purge in the holding tank. If we can reduce their access to the menhaden after they enter the traps at sea, we can reduce the amount of ammonia we have to deal with during on-board and shore-side holding.”

At VSAREC, Drs. Dan Kauffman and Mike Jahncke are assisting with the development of appropriate cooking, packaging, and processing protocols. Much of that work is being done at Casey’s Seafood in Newport News. Kauffman explains “trials are being conducted in the picking houses, comparing boiled and steamed red crab to see what hand-picked yields are obtained. Structurally, red crab is very different from the blue crab they’ve been used to, so this is no small challenge. Shelf-life tests and bacteria counts are being done in the lab.

We’re also looking at new packaging with wrappers that breathe so that the red crabs go to market fresh, or else with a barrier film that allows for pasteurizing.”

The million dollar question is the market price. As Fisher puts it, “We don’t think of the red crab as a substitute for the blue crab, which has its own value and its own market. The red crab can occupy a niche all its own.”

With proper marketing and a bit of luck, Williams thinks that the red crab may emerge as a viable product in the current seafood market. But there’s a powerful wildcard that could turn the red crab into a premium, limited-quantity product: certification from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

MSC and Premium Pricing
Williams has always believed that the red crab could be a high-demand specialty item, but “It’s been very frustrating to me over the years because we have this great product that has no name recognition.” An “Eco-label” MSC certification would get the red crab recognized in an instant.

The MSC was established in 1997 to identify fisheries that are managed for sustainable consumption. As consumers have increased their demand for sustainably harvested seafood, MSC certification has become a fast ticket to premium pricing and bigger markets. Retailers from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart are constantly looking for more MSC-certified products.

The potential benefit of an MSC label is a big motivator for Williams. As Kauffman notes, “It’s an expensive and data-intensive process to create and prove a sustainability plan. That’s not what fishermen normally spend their time and money doing. Jon is making a big personal investment in this.”

There is no guarantee that the MSC will certify his fishery, even though their early evaluations have been promising. As of 2008, the MSC has certified fewer than forty fisheries around the world, with none yet on the U.S. east coast. For a fishery  to qualify for certification, objective third parties must attest to the MSC that it is being managed in a sustainable way with verifiable limits on the total tonnage harvested.

Williams is careful not to overpromise on the odds of success, but he can’t help but notice the buzz about certification. “Even now when we’re only partway through the process, our red crabs are getting international attention,” says Williams. “People have read the MSC’s worldwide press releases, and we’re already getting calls from Europe and South America. I’m getting requests for samples from California grocery chains who never ever would have called had they not seen our progress with the MSC.” If all goes well, the fishery will get its certification by June 2009.

At Home in the Commonwealth
Whether or not the MSC certification comes to fruition, Williams credits the Sea Grant staff at Virginia Tech and VIMS for their help turning the red crab into a new product to sell out of Virginia instead of sending up to Canada. “Working with this team has been great. I’ve worked with scientists for years and years, but it’s never been like this. Many watermen from New England look at marine biologists and scientists as more like the enemy than the advocate. But when I called the folks in Virginia, they said, ‘come on in and let’s see what we can do.’ And they’re moving us forward much, much faster than I could have ever done on my own.”

Williams and his employees at Benthic Fishing Corp. are happy to be in Virginia, particularly when compared to life on the Bering Sea. “Up there, your whole life was nothing but catching crab for months at a time. Some of my crew were on the Deadliest Catch television show, but they like it here because they can actually have a life other than just the boat.” If Williams succeeds in creating a profitable and sustainable red crab market, they can have a good life here for as long as they like.

BOX: No Ordinary Crab 

The sight of big, bright red crabs on the docks in Newport News elicits a lot of questions, says Bob Fisher of Virginia Sea Grant and VIMS. “People want to know where they come from.”

Deep-sea red crabs (Chaceon quinquedens) live along the edge of the continental shelf from Nova Scotia south along the U.S. East Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. They occur at depths from 200 to more than 1,800 meters and water temperatures between 5°C and 8°C. Male crabs reach a maximum shell width of about 180 mm (7.1 in.), while the females only grow to about 120 mm (4.7 in). Males, females, and juvenile crabs are found at different depths, although there is some overlap in their ranges. Juveniles occur in the deepest waters, followed by males, with females at the shallowest depths.

Because of these size and depth differences, the red crab fishery targets only large male crabs. A consistent red crab fishery got underway in the mid-1990s, and about 2,000 metric tons of crab are now landed each year.

Many basic details of the red crab’s biology remain unstudied, according to Richard Wahle, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Captain Jon Williams contacted Wahle in 2000 out of concern about a lack of data to form the basis of a fishery management plan for the species. In the summers of 2003 to 2005, Wahle and his colleagues set out to survey crab populations off southern New England and compare the results to a similar study done in 1974.

“Despite pretty intensive fishing, our estimate of overall abundance was greater than in the early ’70s, and even the abundance of harvestable males is on a par with what it was back then,” says Wahle. He concludes that the population seems to be in pretty good shape, “But we don’t know how fast these crabs grow and that’s going to have an important bearing on yield and response to fishing pressure.” Wahle plans to work with Williams to tag individual crabs and measure their growth to try to answer some of these remaining questions.

For More Information:
Wahle, R.A. et. al. 2008. The Northwest Atlantic deep-sea red crab (Chaceon quinquedens) population before and after the onset of harvesting. ICES Journal of Marine Science 65(6):862–872.
Chute, A. 2006. Status of Fishery Resources off the Northeastern US: Deep Sea Red Crab. Northeast Fisheries Science Center Resource Evaluation and Assessment Division.