The Bering Sea crab fisheries opened on October 15 and eager markets await the first deliveries.
National surveys show clearly that most Americans want to know where their foods come from. Seafood lovers can easily tell at retail counters what country their salmon and other fish choices come from, and if the fish is wild or farmed. That’s due to Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL laws, which went into effect a decade ago. But the laws do not apply to seafood that has been ‘processed,’ no matter how minimally.
“There is an exemption in the COOL laws for products that are cooked or otherwise altered – steamed, canned, things like that, and since crab are all cooked and required to be cooked right after delivery they are exempt.”
Jake Jacobsen is director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.
“Right now when a consumer goes into a grocery store they don’t know if the crab comes from Russia or Newfoundland or Alaska. And we think that the American consumers will prefer Alaskan product and there are good reasons for that.”
The push to exclude products like canned, pouched or smoked fish and steamed crab, Jacobsen says, stemmed from a big push by the U.S. tuna fleet.
“ It was an unintentional consequence that crab was included and we couldn’t get the tuna guys to budge on it because they felt it was a slippery slope and if they gave an inch we’d take a mile. All we wanted to do was carve out crab but they had a much more powerful lobby than we did.”
The crabbers believe the public has a right to know where their crab comes from.
“Especially if there is a chance that some of the crab imported from Russia might be illegal and I think they’ll make a better consumer choice if they have that information. The government doesn’t see it that way at this point, but we’re not going to give up trying.”
In past years, an estimated 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets was from illegal Russian harvests. Jacobsen says the situation has improved but the outcomes are too soon to tell.
“The illegal crab fishing might’ve slowed down but there is still illegal crab going into China and Korea and finding its way into the U.S. but there is no way to tell when it comes into the U.S. if it’s legal or not because there is no traceability requirement. “
Appeals so far to U.S. policy makers have fallen on deaf ears. So crabbers have gone directly to U.S. buyers and retailers. HyVee and Publix only source crab from Alaska and Jacobsen hopes more will follow suit. Meanwhile, the push to get U.S. labeling on Alaska crab will continue.
“Absolutely. It is a big issue to us and very important in the overall program of eliminating illegally caught crab that is imported into the U.S.”