The Norwegian King Crab has been a gastronomic world success but the crab stays in dense concentrations and in deeper water in winter and is an invasive species. Read more about the Norwegian monster crab.
Known locally as “Stalin’s Red Army”, an invasion of red king crabs from Russia created a lucrative industry, and difficult choices for Norwegian fishing industry. It might be the most lucrative catch of the Barents Sea, but it is not native to the region. The question is how this immigrant became such a sought-after commodity.
The giant crab
This giant crab (kamtsjatka crab in Russian/paralithdodes camtschaticus in Latin) has become a matter of course, not only for fishermen in Finnmark, but as an exclusive raw material for gourmet chefs around the world. The distance is short from Norwegian crab nets to the restaurant tables in New York, Tokyo and Seoul.
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In the 1980s, woeful fishermen in Varangerfjord in Finnmark began hoisting up mysterious, spindly giants in their nets. The aliens, brandishing two menacing pincers, weighed far more than the brown crabs they had seen farther south.
The crustaceans traveled from Russia, where scientists had introduced red king crabs on the Murman coast during the 1960s with the goal of establishing a new, lucrative fishery. Slowly, the crabs scuttled the 60 or so miles over the border into Norway where the deep fjords in the Barents Sea near Bugøynes provided the perfect cover.
Quota regulated crab
Today, fishing for red king crab is quota regulated along the east coast of Finnmark, down towards North Cape. West of North Cape there is no quotas, to prevent the crab spreading further down the coastline.
The Japanese in particular seem insatiable on king crab. They give it to each other as a New Year’s gift, huge beasts of three or four kilos, priced at tens of dollars, which means a good price per kilo to Norwegian fisheries. Last October alone, Norway exported 259 tons of king crab worth 9 million dollar, an increase in volume of 61 percent.
The USA, Japan and South Kora were the largest markets.
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Highest volume ever
“Not since 2008 has the export value of king crab been as high as in October last year. At that time, however, the volume was three times as high, which in reality means that the price of king crab has tripled”, says Josefine Voraa, Manager for Shellfish with the Norwegian Seafood Council.
The red king crab has a regal look. Its shell looks like a pointy crown draped in a lavish crimson gown. One of its claws is bigger than the other, which could be mistaken for a scepter, but it’s actually used to crush the red king’s prey.
However, when gourmet restaurant guests are enjoying the strong-tasting crab meat, others are worried about what the table favorite is actually doing down there in the sea. Does it crawl around in heavy hordes? Does it chew on everything it comes across? Is it the beginning of the end of all life along the Finnmark coast? Or does it have a serious image problem only? These are questions Norwegian crab researchers have asked themselves the last few years.
Stalin’s red army
Initially, the invasion of “Stalin’s red army” was seen as a disaster. The crabs became entangled in gillnets and longlines, removing bait and causing damage that allowed coveted fish species to escape. But when the fishermen learned of the million-dollar Alaskan king crab fishery, they realized the crab could be more boom than bust. Today the red king crab is largely credited with rescuing the fishing villages of the north during a time when cod was sparse.
The crab is large, with succulent and tasty flesh, that can be enjoyed in both hot and cold dishes. But the ruler of the Barents Sea crustaceans is not a native of the Norwegian north. Anyone who as seen the TV series “The Deadliest Catch” about crab fishermen in the USA, knows that the red king crab belongs in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia and that the Russians in the 60’s released crabs off the Murmansk coast, just east of the Norwegian border.
In fact, according to some sources, Joseph Stalin tried to do the same before World War II but failed.
To claim that the latest experiment to build up a catchable population has succeeded would be an understatement.
Related: More Seafood from Norway
Center of a huge industry
The monstrous crabs, which now number in the millions, have become the center of a huge industry. The fishermen of Bugøynes can sell their catch for more than 210 Norwegian kroner ($24) a kilo to producers, who distribute the crustaceans to the world’s finest restaurants, hotels and casinos, so If you want to taste one of the largest crabs in the world, be prepared to pay a king’s ransom. It’s truly a luxurious commodity and is almost exclusively served in high-end restaurants.
Without particularly many natural enemies, the crab has found its way right into Norwegian waters. It has gradually migrated westwards and was first caught on the Norwegian side of the border in 1977. Throughout the 1980s, the crab established itself in the Varangerfjord east of Finnmark. But it was not until 1992 that the alarm went off with the authorities. Then the fishermen who caught cod, haddock and lumpfish also caught so much crab that it was no longer fun. The crab destroyed nets and ate bait, it wandered west to the Tana fjord and the Laksefjorden, and in 2000 crab was even caught west of Hammerfest.
Following the crab’s cross-border move, native seafloor species have rapidly declined. The crabs are continuing to expand their territory, and could soon arrive in the Lofoten Islands, one of the world’s largest seasonal cod fisheries.
“Red king crab” is a fitting name for the species—and not just because of its red hue and great size – it can grow to 8 kilos in weight, with a shell of more than 23 cm in length. Like a king, the crab rules its realm of the ecosystem, leaving terror in its wake.
In 2007, the then Minister of Fisheries Helga Pedersen drew a line on the map approximately at the North Cape. To the east of the border, a crab stock was to be built to support the industry, and only a limited amount of crabs of a certain size were to be caught.
That put government regulators in a tough spot, between securing the long-term economic viability of the crab fishery and limiting its takeover of native species and traditional fisheries. They ultimately can’t push for total eradication if king crab is to continue buoying northern coastal communities – but at what cost?
Norwegian authorities have established a two-part strategy for maintaining a sustainable red king crab population: First, a quota-regulated, long-term fishery in East Finnmark; and second by limiting the crab’s dispersal outside of this designated area. In order to protect other valuable species like the cod, all king crab fishing in areas west of the North Cape is therefore unrestricted.
So far, the line has remained, and armed with ropes, traps and bait, the fishermen in the west will keep Western Finnmark empty of crabs. But how easy is this in practice?
The stringent regulations enforced by the Norwegian seafood industry, only increases the crab’s exclusivity, but the king’s appeal is undeniable on its own.
“If you’re a skillful, not lazy fisherman, you can get your full quota – two or three tons per boat – in two or three weeks maximum. Then you are done and get cash in your pocket,” says Roman Vasilyev, a Russian scientist who moved to Bugøynes in 2013 to help advance the technology for shipping live crabs, which sell for more money than processed ones.
The Norwegian Monster Crab, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): King crab expedition / Photo: Hurtigruten