Bristol Bay Red King Crab

During the heyday of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in the mid 1980s, I was working in Juneau as a Fisheries Technician and was given the opportunity to travel to Dutch Harbor to assist on a pilot tagging project being conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Commercial Fisheries Division, research section based in Kodiak. They needed more trained dockside samplers to attempt tag recovery of PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags implanted in red king crab to test the feasibility of a full scale, field-level tagging project. The purpose of this project was to develop a tag not visually detectable externally. This was to address a problem with crab spaghetti tags being either lost during the molt or removed from by crew members to adorn their hats instead of returned to ADF&G for the paltry tag reward. Crab grow through a process called molting wherein they shed their old shell and grow a new one. Tags are used by biologists to study crab growth, movement, and harvest rate to provide for sustainable management.

As the crab boats pulled up to the UNISEA processing plant unloading dock, we dockside samplers went aboard, interviewed the skipper in the wheelhouse, and then sampled totes of red king crabs as they were offloaded. Stepping onto the vessel bridge and into the wheelhouse you entered a tiny fiefdom, the character of each determined by the captain, and generally reflected in the demeanor of the crew and quality of the red king crab catch. The unmistakable cream of the crop were the thick-accented, close-cropped, soft-spoken Norwegian skippers with their crew gliding efficiently in the background, responding efficiently to the Captain’s quiet commands. With their immaculate bridges and tidy decks, these operations were a joy to behold, and invariably yielded vigorous, lively crab with little dead loss. Below this gold standard there were bleary-eyed, leering captains with sullen, beer-swilling crew presiding over debris-strewn bridges with holds full of sluggish crabs and every level imaginable between. It was truly the ‘Wild West’ of the red king crab fishery; fortunes were being made while lives were lost and bodies ruined.

The research staff outside the processing plant inserted PIT tags into the tail of crabs and salted totes with the tagged crabs. Inside the processing plant, we samplers scanned crab with a PIT tag detector as we measured their carapace length and examined them for shell age. Only a few of us samplers had a good detection rate, and the effort was determined a failure and the method scrapped. Crab biologists worldwide are still struggling to develop a decent method to age crabs. Current crab growth research has several different avenues of investigation: the accumulated level of lipofuscin, a pigment in the crab’s eyestalk; distinguishing growth rings by sectioning hard parts in the crab’s stomach that are retained through the molt; and the idea of implanting crabs with ‘pearl’ seed which develop growth rings.

I returned to Dutch Harbor about 5 years ago, passing through enroute to a research cruise, and found it much changed, probably for the better. The ‘Wild West’ mentality had been replaced by an orderly and efficient company town.

Here is a decadent and fun recipe I like to use for leftover red king crab meat. Use it to wow your dinner party with fairly minimal effort!

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Seafood a la king

Tools:

Medium sauce pan

Cookie sheet

Ingredients:

10 oz cooked red king crab meat

10 oz cooked northern salad shrimp

1 box puff pastry shells

4 T butter

4 T all-purpose flour

2 c milk

½ t pepper

½ t salt

1/8 t nutmeg

Pinch cayenne

1 c frozen peas

½ a red pepper, chopped

1 T pimento

1 medium onion, chopped

4 dashes Worcestershire sauce

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400° F. Put puff pastry shells on cookie sheet and bake for 15 min.
Pull crab and shrimp meat from refrigerator, allow to come to room temperature.
Melt butter, add chopped onions and red pepper and sauté until onion is translucent. Slowly whisk in flour until mixed. Add milk and heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens. Season to taste with salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne, remembering that the cooked crab is often somewhat salty. Add pimentos, capers, and Worcestershire sauce.
Fold in peas, cook until warmed.
Fold in room temperature crab and shrimp.
Spoon mixture over puff pastry shells and serve hot.

 

Red King Crab

It was a calm June day in Southeast Alaska. We were setting 200-lb, 7-ft base diameter conical crab pots to survey the red king crab grounds for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As our own research vessel was overbooked this June, we were working on a chartered commercial vessel. We zigzagged through the area setting pots in preselected locations. Setting pots on a survey is different from commercial fishing as the pot locations are randomly predetermined (within areas of known crab habitat based upon historical survey catch distribution) so that the catch will be representative of the area and year, not of the skipper’s skill and knowledge. However, when chartering with a commercial skipper we habitually set additional ‘skippers choice,’ ‘prospecting’ pots using his knowledge of the area to expand our own.

I was having a hard time making myself useful. The deckhand wasn’t big, but commanded the deck with lithe, fluid movements. Grab the bait jars, throw them in the pot, snap them onto the webbing, using the hydraulic boom, lift the pot onto the launcher, throw the buoy and line over, launch the pot on the skippers’ quiet command over the deck speaker. Having performed these tasks as part of a team of three, I could see that there wasn’t any wasted movement here. The sparse, purposeful motion reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony. As a biologist, field work is a welcome break from sitting at a computer analyzing data and writing reports; and it is a joy to work physically on the deck of a boat, so I did my best to contribute.

Several hours later we were done setting pots. We entered data into the computer as the boat rocked gently at anchor, then ate a simple tasty dinner, watched the sun set, and hit the sack.

The next morning, 18 hours later, we started pulling pots. Another nice day, not too sunny to dry out the crabs and make the bait smelly, but not too blowy or rough either, and the horse flies hadn’t hatched out yet as they would later in July. The pots came aboard as smoothly as they had gone over. Throw the hook to grapple the buoy, hand over hand the buoy aboard, wrap the crab block, and with a whine of the hydraulics, the pot surfaces. Hook the pot with the boom hook and pull it over the deck, unhook the purse line that holds the pot bottom closed, and release the crab onto the sorting table. Sort and measure the crab. There were big beautiful legal males, most with shiny clean shells, a few barnacle-studded and scratched; the females all have abdomens bulging with new purple-brown egg clutches, and the juveniles are spiny and quick. After we measure them, crabs are released gently overboard; they swim away, dreamlike into the depths. It is satisfying, rewarding work.

Back in the office our biometrician was waiting impatiently for this data, as the time between data collection, analysis, and management decisions is tight. He estimates the red king crab population size through mathematical modeling techniques. This information is used to set harvest levels for the commercial and sport fisheries in the area.

While fun to know how crabs get to our table, the biggest consideration for cooks is what recipe to use! In all honesty, I like king crab best sectioned, boiled in lightly salted water and dipped in butter. However, if you are lucky enough to have an abundance of this delicacy, then I can heartily recommend this recipe.

 

Thai Red King Crab Legs

Tools:

Cooking shears

Cutting board

Knife

Hand juicer

Large fry pan or wok with lid

 

Ingredients:

1 lb shell-on, uncooked red or golden king crab legs

3 T grape seed oil or canola oil

2 large shallots

1 clove garlic

1 ½ T ginger, julienned

2 T Thai fish sauce

1 t red pepper flakes

½ c dry white wine

Juice of 1 lime

½ lb green beans

1 c cooked short-grain white rice

 

Instructions:

  • Cut king crab legs in sections and then halve lengthwise with kitchen shears.
  • Slice shallots and garlic thinly and julienne ginger.
  • Cut green beans in bite-size lengths, remove stems.
  • Put grape seed oil in wok and heat until sizzling, add shallots, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes, cook until shallots are translucent.
  • Add shell-on king crab leg sections, green beans, fish sauce, chicken stock, and white wine to shallot mixture.*
  • Cover and cook for 6 minutes.
  • Serve over boiled short-grain white rice.
  • This recipe feeds 2 people.

 

* If crab leg sections are cooked, add them at about minute 4 of the 6-minute cooking time.

Dungeness Crab

We were walking a northern California beach at low tide looking for female Dungeness crabs buried in the sand for a friend’s PhD research project on Dungeness fecundity. My years of clam digging were paying off, the slightly angular buried crab image was easily identifiable and I found crab after wriggling female crab—orange egg masses bulging and claws attempting to pinch me. Back in the lab we (killed the crab and) removed the egg mass and estimated the number of eggs. Astonishingly, a female Dungeness can produce 2 to 3 million eggs per clutch. This is the reason she buries herself in the sand, its too many eggs to be carrying around. In Southeast Alaska, female Dungeness crabs bury themselves 5-crab deep and spend the winter hunkered down subsisting on stored energy reserves. The choice of where to bury is important because the eggs need to remain aerated during the approximately 6-month development period. SCUBA divers have found huge football field-size aggregations of these buried females in areas where the sediment has good water flow. In the spring, when the water warms up and phytoplankton blooms, females emerge from the sediment and fan their abdomens to release the attached embryos, which swim off to spend the summer munching plankton before settling to the bottom in the fall as baby crabs. About 5 years later, the crabs reach harvestable size. In Juneau, an evening’s skiff ride to pull crab pots or a trip to the harbor where commercial fishermen sell dockside, can net you a tasty 2 ½-lb Dungie or two. To be honest, I really don’t like messing around with fancy recipes for crab meat until I’ve eaten quite a bit simply boiled and dipped in butter! But after a couple of meals of unembellished fresh crab meat I’m ready to experiment. Here is one of my favorite recipes for Dungeness crab!
Dungeness crab melts
Tools:
Stock pan
Broiler pan
Bowl
Whisk

Ingredients:
One Dungeness crab
8 cups water
2 T salt
4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Juice of ½ lemon
2 T capers
2 T horseradish
½ t black pepper
½ c mayonnaise
6 English muffins
Butter
8 oz Monterey Jack cheese

Instructions:
Clean crab, crack its sternum by banging hard on rounded blunt surface, pull off carapace (shell), and break body into two halves; remove gills and any innards clinging to meat. Bring salted water to boil in large stock pan. Add crab halves and boil for approximately 10 minutes. Remove crab from boiling water and shell.
Combine crab meat with mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, capers, horseradish, and pepper.
Split, toast and butter English muffins, arrange on broiler pan.
Top muffins with crab mixture.
Grate Monterey Jack cheese and spread over crab.
Broil crab melts on high for approximately 5 minutes on second shelf of oven until cheese melts, then turn oven to bake at 400 °F and continue warming crab melts for approximately 7 additional minutes.
This recipe serves 4 to 6 people.