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Red King Crab

Paralithodes camtschaticus

Red king crab

Also Known As

  • Alaska king crab
  • King crab

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

Population

The Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, and Pribilof Islands stocks are above target population levels. The Western Aleutian Islands stock is unknown.

Fishing Rate

The Bristol Bay and Norton Sound stocks are at recommended levels. The Pribilof Islands and Western Aleutian Islands are closed to fishing for red king crab.

Habitat Impacts

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

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

    Year-round, but generally harvested from October to January.

  • Source

    U.S. wild-caught in Alaska.

  • Taste

    Red king crab meat has a distinctive rich, sweet flavor and delicate texture.

  • Texture

    Tender.

  • Color

    White meat with pink accents.

  • Health Benefits

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

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • NOAA Fisheries, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game manage the red king 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 red king 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. 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.
    • 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 a percentage 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.
    • 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.
    • Fishing has been closed for red king crab in the Pribilof Islands and Western Aleutian Islands for many years.

Harvest

  • In 2016, commercial landings of all king crab in Alaska totaled approximately 14.6 million pounds and were valued at more than $104.6 million.
  • Red king crab are mainly harvested in Bristol Bay. Some catch also comes from fisheries in Norton Sound. Red king crab catch from these two areas totaled 12.3 million pounds.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • Mesh-covered pots that are 7 to 8 square feet are used to catch red king crab.
    • Only male crabs can legally be caught and sold.
    • 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.
    • Regulations require 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.
    • Habitat impacts from the red king crab fishery are minor because fishing occurs in areas of soft sediment such as silt and mud. Soft sediments are unlikely to be damaged by fishing gear. Crab pots are less damaging than mobile gear because they are stationary and contact a much smaller area of the seafloor.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the  2017 stock assessment, all four stocks of red king crab (Bristol Bay, Pribilof Islands, Norton Sound, and Western Aleutian Islands) are not subject to overfishing, and Bristol Bay, Norton Sound, and Pribilof Islands red king crab are not overfished.
  • Fishing has been closed for red king crab in the Pribilof Islands and Western Aleutian Islands for many years.

Location

  • In North American waters, red king crabs are found in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, and south to British Columbia, Canada.

Habitat

  • 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.

Physical Description

  • Red king crabs are the largest of the commercially harvested crabs.
  • They 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 smaller claw is used for more delicate handling of food items.
  • Determining the sex of red king crabs is easy. Males have a triangular abdominal flap and females have a rounded one. 

Biology

  • Red king crabs can grow to be very large, up to 24 pounds with a leg span of 5 feet. Males grow faster and larger than females.
  •  Female red king crabs reproduce once a year and release between 50,000 and 500,000 eggs.
  • Larvae hatch from eggs looking like tiny shrimp.
  • The larvae feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton for 2 to 3 months before metamorphosing into tiny crabs and settling on the ocean bottom.
  • Red king crabs can only grow by molting (shedding their old shell and growing a new one). 
  • After molting they are soft and vulnerable to predators until their new shell hardens.
  • Red king crabs eat almost anything they can find 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.
  • Smaller crabs are eaten by a variety of groundfish, octopi, sea otters, and crabs, including other red king crabs.
  • Large red king crabs have few predators except right after molting. 

Last updated: 09/20/2018