Illegal Russian Crab: An investigation of trade flow

Posted on 16 October 2014

Crab stocks in the Russian Far East are at risk of collapse due to overharvest from rampant illegal fishing, a new WWF report shows.
Crab stocks in the Russian Far East are at risk of collapse due to overharvest from rampant illegal fishing, a new WWF report shows. An analysis of more than 10 years of trade and customs data reveals major discrepancies between the reported amount of crab caught in Russian waters and the amount imported into receiving countries, including the US. The study shows that during that period, between two to four times the legal harvest limit has entered the global marketplace.

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“The magnitude of illegal crab fishing threatens the long-term sustainability of the fishery and puts the western Bering Sea marine ecosystem at risk,” said Michele Kuruc, WWF-US vice president of marine policy. “The US is likely importing large quantities of crab and other seafood which may have been illegally caught. The problem is the US is unable to say how much is illegal. We need a way to obtain and assess this information if we want to address this global illegal fishing problem.”

The report, Illegal Russian Crab: An investigation of trade flow, provides a comprehensive look at illegal Russian crab entering the global market, including the US. The report also describes how overharvesting impacts the North Pacific region, which supplies around half of the annual seafood catch for both the US and Russia.

According to Russia’s domestic trade data, the crab fishery stays within its legal harvest limits and does not export more than is caught. But, illegal crab is not reflected in these reports.

WWF’s analysis of Japanese, South Korean, US and other import data revealed major discrepancies in Russian crab quantities reportedly traded, with volumes exported far exceeding annual catch limits. Based on this analysis, the illegal crab harvest amount has been at least double, in some years quadruple, the legal harvest amount in the last decade.

The Russian government has recognized for years that there is corruption and widespread illegal activity in its fisheries sector. In 2013, it took an important step forward by putting forth a set of ambitious domestic goals to address the causes and conditions that enable illegal harvesting. It also has started developing bilateral agreements with its major trade partners – the US, Japan, South Korea, and China.

“Russia cannot solve this problem without cooperation from buyers of Russian seafood,” said Konstantin Zgurovsky, the head of the WWF-Russia marine programme. “We need better port control and a transparent, international monitoring system of fishing activity and seafood trade. Otherwise, we may lose stocks of our most valuable species like crabs.”

The report shows that on average, Russia has supplied around 77% of the US domestic consumer market for king crab for the past 11 years, while crab from Alaska has supplied about 17%. If illegal Russian crab enters this supply, it reduces the price of crab in the US, which hurts the Alaska crab industry.

“There’s a good chance that the king or snow crab Americans are dining on is from Russia, and it could be illegal,” said Kuruc. “Without the ability to verify, the US is unwittingly helping to perpetuate these illegal activities.”

Illegal crab trade flows