Red King Crab

Red King Crab Image

Paralithodes camtschaticus


    Alaska King crab, King crab


    U.S. wild-caught mainly in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska



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A male and female crab mating, found in shallow waters of Womens Bay, Kodiak Island, AK.

A male and female crab mating, found in shallow waters of Womens Bay, Kodiak Island, AK.


Alaska is famous for its red king crab. The fishery dates back to the 1930s when it was initially dominated by foreign fleets. U.S. fishermen started harvesting king crab in 1947. The U.S. fleet expanded in the late 1960s and took over in the 1970s, when the Magnuson-Stevens Act prohibited foreign fishing in U.S. waters. Catch in the Bering Sea peaked in 1980 at almost 130 million pounds, but the stock collapsed shortly thereafter. Catch subsequently dropped sharply in the early 1980s and remained low for the next 2 decades. Under several years of conservative harvest levels and innovative management, Bristol Bay red king crab has finally bounced back. According to the most recent estimates, mature females are almost 3 times more abundant than they were in 1985, and mature males are 2.2 times more abundant. Most of today’s red king crab harvest comes from Bristol Bay and represents one of the most valuable fisheries in the United States.

Unfortunately, king crab populations in other areas of Alaska have not been as responsive to management actions. Despite being closed to fishing since 1995, the populations of red king crab in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska remain low. Scientists are uncertain about the abundance of red king crab around the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. This fishery has been closed since 1999 due to this uncertainty as well as concerns over bycatch of the depressed blue king crab stock. Scientists continue to monitor these populations through periodic surveys and observations of catch.

Looking ahead

Years ago, Kodiak Island fishermen enjoyed bountiful harvests of red king crab. At the fishery's peak in 1965, fishermen caught 94 million pounds of crab, valued at $12.2 million. The fishery was closed after the stock collapsed in the 1980s, but Kodiak red king crab has failed to recover. Because king crab larvae suffer high mortality rates in the wild, NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Alaska Sea Grant disclaimer are conducting research disclaimer on strategies for hatching and rearing king crab in a hatchery and then releasing them into the wild. If successful, these strategies could increase the number of surviving crabs 60 fold.



In North American waters, red king crab are found in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, and south to British Columbia, Canada. There are also populations from Hokkaido, Japan, to Cape Olyutorsk, Russia. In addition, they have been successfully introduced in the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean.

Juveniles less than 2 years old live in shallow waters in complex habitats, such as shell hash, cobble, algae, and bryozoans (branching, coral-like invertebrates) to avoid being preyed upon by fish and other crabs. Older juveniles form pods that travel together, mounding up during the day and feeding at night. Pods can consist of tens of thousands of individual crabs and are likely an anti-predator strategy, similar to schooling in fish. Mature animals move into deeper water (typically less than 650 feet along the continental shelf) to feed, and the females return to shallow waters to hatch their eggs.



Female red king crabs reproduce once a year. They carry between 50,000 and 500,000 eggs (depending on size) under their abdominal flap for about 11 months. They hatch their larvae, which look like tiny shrimp, in the spring. The larvae feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton for 2 to 3 months, and molt four times before metamorphosing into glaucothoe, which look like a cross between a crab and a shrimp. The glaucothoe search for suitable habitat on the bottom and then metamorphose into tiny crabs, and begin their life on the bottom of the ocean.

Red king 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. Red king crabs can molt up to five times in their first year, but as they grow larger they molt less frequently. Mature females need to molt right before mating and do so once a year right after they finish hatching their eggs. The largest males molt even less frequently. In the Eastern Bering Sea red king crab mature at about 4 inches shell length around age 7. Males grow larger than females because they expend much less energy on reproduction. The largest red king crab ever caught weighed 24 pounds, had a leg span of 5 feet, and was probably 20 to 30 years old.

Red king crabs eat almost anything and everything they can find on the bottom of the ocean and crush with their claws. Smaller crabs eat algae, small worms, small clams, and other small animals. Larger crabs eat a much wider range of items including worms, clams, mussels, barnacles, crabs, fish, sea stars, sand dollars, and brittle stars. Large red king crabs, with their strong, spiny armor, are not vulnerable to predators except right after molting. But smaller crabs are eaten by a variety of groundfish, octopi, sea otters, and crabs, including other red king crabs.



Red king crab range in color from brownish to bluish red and are covered in sharp spines. They have three pairs of walking legs and one pair of claws. Their claws are different shapes; one is a large, heavy-duty claw that is used for crushing prey and the other is smaller and used for more delicate handling of food items. The sex can be easily determined by the shape of the abdominal flap: males have a triangular flap and females a rounded flap. Typical sizes range from a shell width of 1/10 inch for the youngest crabs, to more than 8 inches for large males.



Scientists with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center annually survey the Bering Sea crab stocks to estimate their abundance. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also periodically conducts pot and trawl surveys disclaimer for red king crab in several areas throughout Alaska. 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.



Stock assessments conducted for the red king crab populations in Bristol Bay and Norton Sound (2013) indicate that both stocks are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Scientists are uncertain about abundance estimates in the Pribilof Islands, and the red king crab fishery remains closed in that area, but scientists believe the population is not overfished. The red king crab fishery in the Western Aleutian Islands, assessed in 2013, is not overfished but also remains closed.   

Surveys have been too limited and infrequent to provide a reliable estimate of abundance of red king crab in the Adak area of the Aleutian Islands. This fishery has been closed off and on since the end of the 1995/1996 fishing season due to poor reproduction and growth rates in this population.


Harvesting Red King Crab

King crabs are the largest of the commercially harvested crabs. Fishermen catch them for their sweet, rich meat using mesh-covered pots that are 7 to 8 feet square. Only male crabs can legally be caught and sold. King crab fishing can be dangerous due to the heavy crab pots, coils of line, long hours, and rough seas that can exceed 20 feet.

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.

Red king crab are mainly harvested in Bristol Bay. Some catch also comes from fisheries in Norton Sound. There are three main fisheries in Norton Sound: summer commercial, winter commercial, and winter subsistence. The majority of the harvest comes from the summer fishery.



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 red king 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 Bristol Bay, recent catches have been among the highest in the past 15 years. Harvest during the 2010/2011 fishing season was close to 15 million pounds, about 1 million pounds less than the previous season. Harvest declined a bit because surveys found that growth has been slow in the population, resulting in lower numbers of legal-sized males. 2012 harvests were more than 16 million pounds. In Bristol Bay, 2013/2014 harvest levels have been set at 8.6 million pounds.



In 2011 the dockside price for red king crab was $10.81 per pound and the total value of the Bristol Bay fishery was about $84 million. Since 2001 the value of the fishery has varied from $45 to $95 million per year, and in 2012 the harvest in Alaska was valued at more than $90 million.



Red king crab meat, like most crustaceans, has a sweet flavor and delicate texture; however, red king crab are celebrated for their distinctive rich flavor. In the United States, the legs and claws are steamed before being frozen in brine. They simply need to be thawed and reheated gently before eating. The legs and claws must be cracked to remove the meat, which can then be eaten as is, dipped in melted butter, or used in a variety of dishes. (Seafood Business, 2011)



Generally harvested from October to January but product is available year-round.



King crab is low in saturated fat and is a great source of protein, vitamin B12, phosphorus, zinc, copper, and selenium.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 84
Protein 18.29 g
Fat, total 0.6 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.090 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 42 mg
Selenium 36.4 mcg
Sodium 836 mg

Red King Crab Table of Nutrition