Many consumers may not be familiar with bairdi crab, commonly referred to as Tanner crab, harvested in the Gulf of Alaska. For commercial fishermen in fishing communities throughout the gulf, including Kodiak, my hometown, the Tanner/bairdi crab fishery is the talk of the town. The anticipation and excitement are palpable around the community as the fleet gets ready to fish.
Tanner crab, Chionoecetes bairdi, is often marketed as snow crab but is technically a meatier relative of the species Chionoecetes opilio. Whether you want to sell it at retail as snow, bairdi or Tanner, I like to say just call it Alaska crab, and you’ll be good to go.
While lacking the fame of king crab, Gulf of Alaska Tanner/bairdi crab are renowned by seafood connoisseurs and particularly prized for their texture and sweet flavor. In fact, of all the crab species, many fishermen, including my family, prefer the large gulf Tanner/bairdi crab over all others. The meat is particularly sweet, with a delicate flavor and tender texture. It is not quite as rich as some other crab species, and the subtle flavor of the meat is often met with sighs of delight. The crab is harvested from the pristine Alaska marine environment, and the light taste seems to capture the sea spray, the clean air and the beauty of Alaska’s great land!
Fishermen harvest Tanner/bairdi crab using pots that are designed to keep the large crab in and let the small crab escape. Each pot is baited with salmon, herring and other fish. There are a number of escape rings in each pot so the smaller crab can find their way back out. Each vessel is limited to 30 pots which minimize impacts on the crab stocks. The bulk of the boats harvesting the crab are small, community-based, diversified fishermen, and the mid-January season serves as an exciting kickoff opportunity for the year ahead.
Most of the money generated by these harvesters stays in the fishing communities that participate in the fishery and circulates through the community long after the fishery closes. Retailers are directly supporting these fishermen when they purchase Tanner/bairdi crab, which is great sustainability messaging to share with your shoppers.
The winter Tanner/bairdi crab fishery is somewhat unique in that it was designed with input from the community-based fleet. Careful stewards of the resource, Kodiak crab fishermen played an integral role in designing the management system to have the least negative impact on the crab stocks. Fishermen wanted managers to factor in safety, equity and conservation into how the fishery operates. Crab pots can be hauled only from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., reducing the mortality of discarded crab — those that are undersized or female. Minimizing the number of times a pot is hauled in a 24-hour period reduces stress on the crab when handled on deck, and the daylight-only requirement limits the exposure of discarded crab to colder temperatures in the night.
Alaska seafood processors package the crab for the domestic market in crab sections, a half crab per section, which consists of the body meat, the legs and the claws. The crab is fully cooked and ready to serve once thawed. It can be eaten right out of the shell and prepared in a variety of ways. I prefer to eat it without any butter or sauces to fully enjoy its sweet flavor. My favorite potluck dish to share is hot crab artichoke dip, which is always a hit at every fisherman gathering.
Last year the available harvest in Kodiak was 1.1 million pounds, and 82 vessels easily caught the crab in eight days. This year, the quota is more than 5 million pounds and represents the largest harvest opportunity the gulf has seen in more than 20 years. At last count, there were 104 vessels registered to harvest Tanner/bairdi crab, and with the abundance of large male crab, the season is expected to go fairly quickly. These crabs are usually between 7 to 11 years old and average between 2 to 4 pounds.
In a town like Kodiak, which is sustained by fishing, there are few opportunities to make a living other than commercial fishing. Our family, like hundreds of others, depends on access to a variety of fisheries to make a living: Tanner/bairdi crab, Pacific cod, herring, salmon and halibut. The Tanner/bairdi crab fishery is critical to helping provide for our families and our crew, and to keep our fishing economy strong. We are thankful for the healthy crab stocks that surround our island home, and for the opportunity to harvest the crab and provide healthy, sustainably caught seafood for our nation’s consumers.