The Value of Crab

For such a niche profession, Alaskan crab fisheries have a surprisingly strong cultural presence. Through shows such as Deadliest Catch (now on its 17th season), crab fishermen showcase the rewards of hard work. It’s the classic American tale. Work through sleepless nights in dangerous conditions, push yourself past to your limits and past them, and all that pain and sacrifice will be rewarded. You’ll get a huge paycheck, you’ll work your way up from a greenhorn to a captain, you might even be a celebrity.

From my hometown of Homer, Alaska – we used to have a gift shop dedicated to merch for a single Deadliest Catch ship. Also the best pizza in town next door.

But if you follow the crabs to shore, you run into a crowd of people whose hard work isn’t getting them TV deals, or even a decent wage. Upon returning to port, an army of workers descends on the ship to offload the crab, check each for quality, break them into chunks ready for sale, and place them into boxes for freezing and shipment. It’s backbreaking, monotonous, dangerous work. It’s also extraordinarily valuable – without the work of seafood processors, all that delicious crab and fish wouldn’t make it anywhere near your dinner table.

To get an idea for the difficulty of offloading crab, put two gallons of milk on the floor. Now put them on a shelf at head height. Repeat that around 500 times. Congratulations – with the help of a few friends, you could offload a small delivery from one ship! Of course, in real life, you’re cold and wet, standing in an uneven and swaying hold. The gallons of milk don’t have convenient handles – they’re covered in sharp spines and if you misplace a hand they might pinch you hard enough to cause nerve damage. And after you finish that delivery, you have another, and then another. Let’s be kind and say just another 9 hours.

Though their work requires strength, skill, and tenacity, crab processors get far less than they deserve. Over a 12-hour shift, they take home only $140. Most in the industry work seasonally, but even optimistically assuming year-round 40-hour work weeks, that’s only $24,000 per year. Now, they do get other benefits – generally, housing and food is covered during the season. But “housing” often means staying in crowded, rat-infested dorms with moldy mattresses and raw sewage. Those dirty, cramped conditions meant that processors were hot spots for COVID, with some outbreaks infecting over 75% of workers.

AIG = Aleutian Island golden king crab, BBR = Bristol Bay red king crab, BSS = Bering Sea snow crab,
BST = Bering Sea Tanner crab. Note the difference in scale on the graphs on the right.
Images from this report

Low-paying, physically taxing jobs in unhygienic conditions aren’t desirable for many. But instead of simply offering higher wages, seafood processors typically fly in temporary foreign workers (often from countries that have been politically and economically devastated by US policy) who lack better options. Interestingly, the processing industry hasn’t exactly been subtle about bending the rules with visas. Until 2012, many seafood processors were actually foreign students, with their work legally designated as “cultural exchange”. This creates racial stratification that is particularly jarring to witness. On the floor of the plant, English takes a backseat to Spanish and Tagalog, but upstairs in the offices, nearly everyone is white.

Often, discussions of low pay are met with the refrain that workers should have chosen jobs that were “more valuable”. But what does that mean? Well, let’s look at it from the perspective of the owner. If they pay the average processor $11.85 per hour, then by definition, the processor must be producing more than $11.85 of value (even after accounting for expenses like operating costs). If it didn’t, the owner would have no reason to hire them! That extra value then goes to the owner as profit. And there is plenty of profit to be made – the owner of Trident Seafood, one of the larger processors operating in the Bering Sea, is worth around $1.1 billion. These fisheries are unbelievably lucrative. The problem is, the workers aren’t the ones getting it.

So, what is to be done? How do we fix this obvious injustice? Unfortunately, it isn’t simply a matter of pointing it out – most of this exploitation is entirely legal. And the illegal exploitation that exists (such as rampant wage theft) has no real mechanism for enforcement. Voting in politicians and changing the laws works in the abstract, but politicians are far more answerable to American billionaires than working-class non-citizens. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but when I look at pushes for better treatment of food production workers – both historical and current – I don’t see people asking politely for change. Instead, I see people uniting together and using the power they have as workers to force that change to happen.

We picture the crab fishery as a Bering Sea fisherman headed back home. He’s dead tired, the caffeine barely putting an edge on the dull exhaustion that blankets him. But he’s happy too. He made good money out there, enough to pay the bills and a good chunk more too. When they pull up to offload their catch, he can sit back, relax, and watch the dollar bills be hauled out of the hold. But we ignore the mansions of the owners and upper management, paid for with millions from the labor of others. And we certainly ignore the middle-aged woman up at the processor pulling her gloves over arthritic fingers. She’ll be on her feet for another 12 hours, stacking boxes, cracking open crabs, filleting fish. Despite all her hard work, she won’t make anywhere near a fair day’s pay. As people who are in some way adjacent to the crab industry, we have a responsibility to make sure she gets it.

The Invader That Isn’t

It’s 1989. The Golden Gate bridge looms in the background as Californians calmly go about their day, unaware of the threat that surrounds them. In the water, the invading force waits, building their strength, knowing that soon they can seize the whole coast. This wasn’t a particularly hamfisted Hollywood movie – it really did happen! The invader was just a little smaller than you might think. The European green crab (Carcinus maenas) – a small crab with a voracious appetite – had appeared on the west coast of North America, and had no plans to go anywhere.

The response from the scientific community was swift and decisive. Money poured in to research and understand the nature of the threat. Volunteer citizens monitored their beaches. The European green crab could completely overturn nearshore Pacific ecosystems from Mexico to Alaska, and everyone wanted to stop it. To this day, monitoring programs are still in place all across the West Coast (in Washington State, the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team is usually looking for volunteers!)

In true Cold War fashion, another invader was simultaneously preparing to launch an attack. Seven years later, some Russian fishermen off the bitterly cold Arctic coast of Novaya Zemlya pulled up a few snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio). In the years since, their numbers have exploded and their range has expanded west, through much of the Barents Sea.

That long island in the top right is Novaya Zemlya, which translates to New Land – tells you a bit about just how remote it is!

Rather than alarm, this invasion was greeted by a mix of caution and optimism! While European green crab are inedible (at least usually), plenty of people saw the appearance of snow crab as an opportunity for a new fishery. Monitoring programs were established, but with the goal of managing the population, not curbing its harm. Today, the main problems are political, not ecological. Russia and Norway are trying to monopolize the snow crab harvest, sending diplomats across Europe into a tizzy. Norway projects that eventually, the Barents Sea snow crab fishery could be worth upwards of 300 million USD annually. That’s some serious money on the line.

Not everyone is thrilled about the arrival of snow crab. Their introduction could completely disrupt nutrient cycling and send ripples up and down the food chain – there’s still so much that we simply don’t know about what its impact is and will be! But as of yet, there hasn’t been any major impact on any commercially-important species. And despite those fairly large caveats, that has been enough to deem Barents Sea snow crab a resource to be managed and fought over, not a pest to be eradicated.

A key question: Are snow crab “sedentary”? If yes, they’re governed by the same boundaries as oil and gas deposits. If not, then they’re governed by fishery boundaries. Diplomacy gets complicated quick!

Two invasive species, two completely different responses. Looking at them side-by-side showcases a few things. First, our response to introduced species has a whole lot to do with their impact on us rather than high-minded ideals of keeping ecosystems intact and primordial. And second, each species introduction is different. Some are disastrous, like the cane toad or the Burmese python. Others can be neutral, or even positive to both ecosystems and humans, such as with giant tortoises or honeybees! In fact, many have been calling for us to change the way we talk about so-called “invasive” species – describing them instead with more neutral terms such as “non-native”.

Whether the Barents Sea snow crab introduction will, in the long run, be seen as good is yet undetermined. But for now, the outlook seems positive. And who knows – with some shifts to the American diet, perhaps in a few decades the appearance of European green crab in California will be seen as a welcome arrival, not a terrifying invasion.

Do Tanner crab exist?

After several years of posts on here dedicated to Tanner crab research, this may seem like a ridiculous question. However, the answer is surprisingly complex and not as clear-cut as it first appears.

First, some housekeeping – beginning with this post, this site will be ran by Aidan Coyle. Aidan joined Steven’s lab in the fall of 2020, and has continued with the research began by Grace Crandall on Tanner crab and Hematodinium, now that Grace has graduated. Infinite thanks to Grace for her diligent and detailed data collection, the help she has kindly given me with my work, and the time spent creating this site (the DecaPOD was what got me interested in Steven’s lab)!

Now let’s return to today’s question. To determine what a Tanner crab (Chionoecetes bairdi) is, let’s first define what makes it unique from one of its closest relatives – the snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio).

One of these is a snow and the other is a Tanner. Can you tell the difference? (hint: it’s not the color)

First, they generally live in different parts of the world. If you’re in Newfoundland or the Beaufort Sea, you can be sure you have a snow crab. Likewise, from southern Alaska to Oregon, only Tanners are around. But if you don’t know where the crab came from, the real telltale signs are in the face. Tanner crab have red eyes and pointy M-shaped mouths, while the blue-eyed snow crab has a flat mouth. And if you can’t see the face, look at the shape. The main shell (or carapace) of Tanner crab is more oval and less rounded.

Tanner crab also look much more menacing

However, there is a problem. Tanner and snow crab can hybridize. And in the Bering Sea, where their ranges overlap, they often do! Biomass surveys indicate there are over 10 million pounds of hybrids within the Bering Sea. And these hybrids aren’t sterile, like mules or ligers. They can mate, which means we aren’t just dealing with snow crab, Tanners, and hybrids. There’s just about about everything in between!

This creates some issues for fishery management. Snow and Tanner crab fisheries are managed separately. Someone with just a snow crab permit isn’t allowed to go catch Tanners, and vice-versa. But what about the hybrids? Well, if you’re the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, you just lump all hybrids with one species. Legally, Tanner crab need both an M-shaped mouth and completely red eyes. If they lack either, they’re considered a snow crab. However, not everyone agrees with this – particularly not the people catching the crab! If you’re out on deck in the cold and the dark, sorting through crab as quickly as possible, you really don’t want to spend the time carefully peering at each crab’s face. So some have proposed instead to shrug their shoulders and just say that no matter which fishery you’re in, hybrids are legal to catch.

At first, it also seems like this is a problem for our scientific understanding! After all, we all learned in high school biology that a “species” is a group that can produce fertile offspring together. So if snow and Tanner crab can do that, why are all these marine scientists treating them as separate species? Well, because it’s convenient! The concept of a “species” is just a useful way that we have of sorting and organizing the natural world. If we strictly adhered to that high school definition, we’d get some odd results. Polar bears would be considered just an odd population of grizzlies, and cows would be managed together with bison. And when talking about animals that reproduce asexually, chaos would reign!

You’ve probably heard about grolar bears, but what about the incredibly-named BEEFALO?

In other words, when we talk about “species”, we’re just trying to understand a spectrum by binning it into discrete categories. It can sure be useful, but we should recognize that it’s something we’ve constructed, rather than something cleanly and clearly defined by biology.

On a completely unrelated note, happy Pride!

DecaPod S2E6: Interview with Laura Slater

This episode was initially recorded in April 2020… and is now finally being shared with you! In this episode, I interviewed Laura Slater, a Crab Research Biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the Division of Commercial Fisheries, and a PhD student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

We discuss her work, her PhD project: understanding mating dynamics of snow crab in the Bering Sea, and SO much more!

DecaPod S2E5: Three month project plan, and what is this frilly crab tissue?

In this episode, we go over our three month plan (grant ends in March) for finishing sample processing and analyses. We also talk about some things I’ll add to my talk for the Alaska Marine Science Symposium 2020 conference, and finally Pam identifies a strange frilly crab tissue from samples she gave us!

DecaPod S2E4: November Progress update – 6 new libraries ready for RNAseq!

In this episode, we talk about the process leading up to having 6 new libraries ready for sequencing. The 6 libraries are (note: Day 9 is before temperature treatment):

  1. Day 9, infected
  2. Day 9, uninfected
  3. Day 12, cold, infected
  4. Day 12, cold, uninfected
  5. Day 12, warm, infected
  6. Day 12, warm, uninfected

DecaPod S2E3: Interview with Shanelle Haughton

In this episode, we have a special guest, Shanelle Haughton! She is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. We talk about her path to graduate school, her upcoming research on Hematodinium spp. infection in Eastern Bering Sea, Alaskan Tanner crabs, and imposter syndrome and finding ways to work through it by making time for self care, and building community.

DecaPod S2E2: Status update on libraries being sequenced

In this week’s episode, we give an update on our libraries being prepped and sequenced by NWGC: libraries accounting for sampling day and infection statuses. Additionally, we talk about the plan for when sequence data arrives in August/September.