Alaska Snow Crab

Alaska Snow Crab Image

Chionoecetes opilio


    Opilio, Opies


    U.S. wild-caught from Alaska’s Eastern Bering Sea



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Only male crabs can legally be caught for commercial use. Commercial size males are usually older than 8 years and weigh between 1 and 2 pounds. (Photo credit: Forrest Bowers, Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Only male crabs can legally be caught for commercial use. Commercial size males are usually older than 8 years and weigh between 1 and 2 pounds. (Photo credit: Forrest Bowers, Alaska Department of Fish and Game)


Snow crab – named for their sweet, delicate, snow-white meat – is one of Alaska’s signature crab fisheries. Although the Alaska snow crab fishery has had its ups and downs over the years, management has effectively responded to these fluctuations. Every year, scientists determine the abundance of the snow crab resource. Using these abundance estimates, managers set a harvest limit for the following fishing season. In 1999 when scientists found that the snow crab stock had fallen below the minimum stock size threshold (i.e., had become overfished), managers cut harvests for the following fishing seasons to a level that would allow the stock to recover. Under conservative harvest levels, Alaska snow crab has rebounded and is now above its target population level. This is good news for the resource and for fishermen, too. An abundant resource can sustainably support higher harvests, and managers boosted the harvest limit for 2011/2012 by 64 percent to nearly 90 million pounds. The 2013/2014 total allowable catch for Alaska Bering Sea snow crab is set at about 54 million pounds, representing a decrease from 2012. 

In 2005, the derby-style fishery – where anyone could enter the fishery and the fishery was closed when the catch limit was reached – was replaced with an individual fishing quota (IFQ). Under the IFQ management system, individual fishermen are given a share of the harvest and can catch their share at any time during the fishing season. This has resulted in a safer and more efficient fishery, as fishermen can take weather and economic factors into account when deciding when to fish.

Looking ahead

Crabs are incidentally caught in fisheries for groundfish and scallops. These fisheries are prohibited from harvesting crab so if they catch them, they are required to throw them back. However, because most of these discarded crabs die, researchers, managers, and fishermen have worked hard to reduce bycatch of crab in other fisheries. A number of measures are in place in other fisheries to protect crab, including bycatch limits, closed areas, and modifications to fishing gear. Researchers continue to look for new ways to protect the valuable crab resource.




Snow crabs have a wide distribution. In Asia, they’re found in the Japan Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. In the Atlantic, they’re found from Greenland south to Maine. Off the coast of Alaska they live in the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi Seas, although they’re only harvested in the Bering Sea. They prefer soft sandy or muddy bottoms, typically in water less than 650 feet deep, where they can burrow if threatened by predators and where they can feed on the animals living in the sediment.



In Alaskan waters, female snow crabs can carry up to nearly 100,000 eggs, depending on their size. They hatch their larvae in the spring when there is plenty of food in the water column. Larvae, which look like tiny shrimp, live in the water and feed on plankton. The larvae molt and grow through three stages before becoming megalops, which look like crabs with long tails. Megalops seek out suitable habitat, settle, molt, and metamorphose into the first crab stage. From this point forward they look like miniature versions of the adult crabs, and will live on the bottom for the rest of their lives.

Snow crabs, like all crustaceans, can only grow by molting, because their hard shells (exoskeletons) prevent a gradual increase in size. When a crab is ready to molt, they absorb a lot of water and swell up inside their old shell until it pops open. Then they wriggle out of the old shell and absorb even more water to increase their size. Right after molting they are very soft and vulnerable to predators until their new shell hardens. Snow crabs molt several times a year for the first couple of years, but as they grow larger they molt less frequently. When they have reached sexual maturity, both females and males have a terminal molt, after which they never molt again. Females seldom grow larger than 3 inches in shell width while males can reach 6 inches. Scientists estimate that snow crabs may live for up to 20 years.

Snow crabs will eat almost anything they can catch and break open with their claws, including fish, shrimp, crabs, worms, clams, brittle stars, snails, algae, and sponges. They will also scavenge on anything dead they find. In turn, they are eaten by seals, sea otters, octopi, other crabs, and a wide variety of fish.



Snow crabs have a hard rounded shell, four pairs of walking legs, and one pair of claws. On top they are brownish in color and underneath they are lighter. Their eyes are green or greenish blue. Males and females can be distinguished by the shape of their abdominal flaps; on males this flap is triangular, whereas on females it is broadly rounded.



Scientists with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center annually survey the Bering Sea crab stocks to estimate their abundance. NOAA Fisheries and the State of Alaska use this information to determine the status of the stocks and to set the harvest limits for the following fishing season.



Scientists use model estimates of the number of mature males in the population (mature male biomass) at the time of mating as the measure for population status of snow crab. Mature male biomass has increased since its low in 2002, and, the 2013 stock assessment concluded that the population in the Bering Sea is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. The latest assessment, completed in 2013, found that snow crab populations are above target levels.  


Harvesting Snow Crab

Foreign fleets harvested snow crab in the Bering Sea from the 1960s through 1980, until the Magnuson-Stevens Act banned foreign fishing in U.S. waters. Today, the U.S. fleet is made up of a variety of vessels, from small inshore vessels to large-scale “super crabbers” that fish in the Bering Sea. Commercial fishermen use crab pots to harvest snow crab. They bait the pots with chopped herring, mackerel, or squid and lower the pots over silt and mud bottoms. After a couple days, fishermen haul the pots back on board, empty them, and sort the catch – then start all over again. Crab pots can unintentionally catch female crab (which may not be harvested), males under the commercial size, and non-targeted crab species as well as a small number of other species including octopus, Pacific cod, Pacific halibut, other flatfish, sponges, coral, and sea stars. Management requires fishermen to install escape panels and rings on their pots to prevent ghost fishing (when lost pots continue to capture and kill species) and to reduce bycatch.



Who’s in charge? North Pacific Fishery Management Council, NOAA Fisheries, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Current management: Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands King and Tanner Crab Fishery Management Plan, which defers management of crab fisheries to the State of Alaska with federal oversight. State regulations must comply with the fishery management plan, the national standards of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and other applicable federal laws.

  • The Alaska snow crab fishery is currently managed according to three “S’s” – size, sex, and season. Only male crabs of a certain size may be harvested, and fishing is not allowed during mating and molting periods. These measures help ensure that crabs are able to reproduce and replace the ones that are harvested.
  • Every year, managers set the harvest limit for the next fishing season using the most recent estimates of crab abundance. Managers allocate shares of the harvest among harvesters, processors, and coastal communities through the “Crab Rationalization Program,” which was implemented in 2005 to address economic, safety, and environmental issues in the fishery. This program includes a “Community Development Quota,” which protects community interests by allowing community groups 10 percent of the harvest. They’re given the opportunity to purchase shares in the fishery before the shares are offered for sale outside the community.
  • Vessels carry vessel monitoring systems (satellite communications systems used to monitor fishing activities) and must report their landings electronically, so managers can monitor the fishery in real time and anticipate any issues. If they project the fishery will reach the harvest limit before the end of the fishing season, they will close the fishery.
  • Fishermen must install escape panels and rings on their pots to prevent ghost fishing (when lost pots continue to capture and kill species) and to reduce bycatch.
  • NOAA Fisheries also runs a voluntary buyback program to reduce excess participation in crab fisheries. The agency pays participants for withdrawing their vessels from the fishery, relinquishing fishing licenses, and surrendering fishing histories. Reducing excess vessels in the fishery helps conserve the resource and increases the productivity and value of the fishery for remaining participants.
  • Observers are required to be on 20 percent of the vessels in the fishery. They collect data on the retained crabs, discarded crabs, and bycatch, and document any violations of fishing regulations.

Annual Harvest

In the 2010/2011 season, 54.5 million pounds of snow crab were harvested in U.S. fisheries in the Bering Sea. Managers boosted the harvest limit for the 2011/2012 season to 89.9 million pounds, and during the 2011/2012 season more than 88 million pounds of snow crab were harvested from the Bering Sea.



In 2011 the dockside price for snow crab was $2.54 per pound and the total value of the Bering Sea fishery was about $226 million. The 2012 harvest was worth more than $166 million.



The snow white meat is what gives the snow crab its name and its reputation as a delicacy. In the United States, the legs and claws are typically steamed and frozen in brine before being sold. They simply need to be thawed and reheated gently before eating. The meat is sweet and flaky, is more delicate in flavor than king crab, and can be eaten directly out of the shell, dipped in melted butter, or used in a variety of recipes. (Seafood Business, 2011)



Generally harvested from January to April in the Eastern Bering Sea, but product is available year-round.



Crab provides many dietary benefits, including a low-fat source of protein.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 90
Protein 18.5 g
Fat, total 1.18 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.143 g g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 55 mg
Selenium 34.6 mcg
Sodium 539 mg

Snow Crabs Table of Nutrition



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