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Alaska Snow Crab

Chionoecetes opilio

Alaska snow crab

Also Known As

  • Opilio
  • Opies

U.S. wild-caught Alaska snow crab is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Population

Below target level and fishing rate promotes population growth.

Fishing Rate

At recommended level.

Habitat Impacts

Habitat impacts from crab pots are minor because fishing occurs in areas of soft sediment such as silt and mud that are unlikely to be damaged by fishing gear.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

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

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught in Alaska.

  • Taste

    Sweet.

  • Texture

    Delicate and flaky.

  • Color

    The snow-white meat is what gives the snow crab its name and its reputation as a delicacy.

  • Health Benefits

    Alaska snow crab is a low-fat source of protein.

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • NOAA Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manage the Alaska snow crab fishery.
  • Managed under the Fishery Management Plan for Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands King and Tanner Crabs, 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 the “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.
    • 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.
    • Managers monitor catch in real time and are able to close the fishery when the harvest limit is reached.

Observers are required on 20 percent of the vessels in the fishery. They collect data on catch and bycatch and document any violations of fishing regulations.

Harvest

  • In 2016, commercial landings of Alaska snow crab totaled approximately 39.6 million pounds and were valued at more than $80 million. Snow crabs are only harvested in the Bering Sea.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • The fishing 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 ocean 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 crabs (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.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the 2017 stock assessment, Alaska snow crabs are not overfished and are not subject to overfishing.

Location

  • Alaska snow crabs are found off the coast of Alaska in the Bering, Beaufort, and Chukchi Seas.

Habitat

  • Alaska snow crabs prefer soft sandy or muddy ocean 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.

Physical Description

  • Alaska 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, and on females it is broadly rounded.

Biology

  • Male Alaska snow crab can reach 6 inches in shell width but females seldom grow larger than 3 inches.
  • Scientists estimate that snow crabs may live for up to 20 years.
  • Females 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.
  • When the eggs hatch, the larvae look like tiny shrimp.
  • The larvae feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton before metamorphosing into tiny crabs and settling on the ocean bottom.
  • Alaska snow crabs can only grow by molting (shedding their old shell and growing another). 
  • After molting snow crabs are soft and vulnerable to predators until their new shell hardens.
  • When they have reached sexual maturity, both females and males undergo a “terminal molt,” after which they never molt again.
  • 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.
  • Seals, sea otters, octopi, other crabs, and a wide variety of fish prey on Alaska snow crabs.

Last updated: 09/19/2018