Crabbing is the most important of Alaska's commercial shellfish industries. Three kinds of crab—Alaska king, tanner, and Dungeness—are fished commercially in Alaska waters.
Foreign boats dominated Alaska's commercial crabbing industry when it began around 1950. Profits were good, and hundreds of U.S. boats quickly moved in. At the peak of the king crab boom in 1980, the so-called "Cadillac of crab fisheries" produced 200 million pounds of crab. Captains regularly earned over
$150,000 in a season, crew members commonly brought home shares of over $80,000, and crab boats were equipped with stereo systems, VCRs, microwaves, and occasionally saunas.
Suddenly, for reasons still debated within the industry, the fishery went bust. It was
one of the worst fishery disasters of all time. By 1983 there was no harvest whatsoever.
Many experts say the old days are gone forever, but some feel with proper management of the fishery, they can make a comeback. King crab are now harvested mainly in the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. The 2001 fall king crab harvest of 11.9 million pounds was slight decrease over that of 2000. The
harvest has declined from 24.5 million pounds in 1998. Due to reduced Alaska seasons, much of the king crab catch is now made in Russian or international waters by large crab catcher/processors, though many of these are American owned and operated.
When the king crab fishery crashed in 1980, crabbers either diversified and
worked salmon, halibut, and other fisheries, or focused on the two varieties of tanner crab—bairdi and opilio.
Stocks of the preferred bairdi have struggled to rebound. A low 1.3 million pounds were caught in 2001, down more than a third from the previous year. To
compound the issue, prices were also down a little. Opilio—which are marketed as "snow crab"—harvests have had a major crash in recent years. In 2001, they only harvested 23.2 million pounds. This was down from harvest of over 243 million pounds in 1998. Even though prices have tripled since 1998, it still hasn't made up for this major decrease, with the total ex-vessel price decreasing from $133.8 million in 1998 to just about $36 million in 2001.
Both king and tanner crab are harvested offshore, and although they occur in small numbers in Southwest, the most important fisheries are in Kodiak, Bristol Bay, and the icy waters of the Bering Sea. Various kinds of crab pots—some of which are up to 10 feet square and weigh hundreds of pounds—are baited with herring, cod, or pollock and lowered from crabbing boats to the floor of
the continental shelf and marked with a buoy. The boats return later and haul up the traps, each of which are often laden with hundreds of pounds of crab.
Dungeness make up a relatively small portion of Alaska's annual crab haul. This catch is harvested from Alaska down the Pacific coast to Mexico, so
crabbers also concentrate on other species unless prices are high. Unlike kings and tanners, Dungeness are typically found in shallower waters, especially near river mouths.