Bering Sea Crabs: Types and Fishing

King crabs from the Bering Sea have an approximate commercial value of between $ 100 and $ 130 per kilo. Between 1975 and 2018, king crabs were the second most valuable species for fishermen.
Bering Sea Crabs: Types and Fishing

Last update: 16 August, 2021

The Bering Sea contains a tremendous variety of species. It’s located north of the Pacific Ocean, separating the Asian and American continents. The marine animals that live there support the lives of many people, which is why it’s considered an important area for fishing. Above all, this place stands out for one of its most precious resources: the crabs of the Bering Sea.

Life in these cold and difficult waters has caused the prices of these crabs to be quite high. Some are considered as true delicacies, worthy of a luxury menu. Learn more about these crabs with us in the following article.

Red king crab (Paralithodes camtschaticus)

This crab is one of the main species caught in the Bering Sea. Its distribution is quite wide, as it’s found from Japan, through Kamchatka, Russia, right along to the coasts of North America. It belongs to the group of King Crabs, which are distinguished by their large size and spiny shape.

As its name implies, this crustacean shows a red coloration, with a shell up to 17 centimeters (7 inches) wide. In addition, it’s a decapod, so it has 10 legs: 2 wide ones with a pincer shape, 6 that are used to walk, and two barely perceptible ones close to its jaws. The shape of its body and six-foot-long limbs (yes, you read that right!) have helped it to receive its name.

This organism usually inhabits the depths of the sea and buries itself in sandbanks, moving only to feed. However, during winter and early spring, it migrates to the surface to breed. This situation is used by fishermen to catch it, following the rules proposed by local governments.

One of the Bering Sea crabs on a white background.

Golden king crab (Lithodes aequispinus)

This decapod is found from British Columbia, through the Aleutian Islands, right up to regions of the Sea of Japan. Compared to the red king crab, this one is smaller, as its average weight is around 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds).

Despite its name, the color of this crustacean ranges from dull yellow to golden-brown hues, which makes it very distinguishable from other species. Even so, it continues to share the same physical characteristics with the aforementioned species: 5 pairs of limbs and a migration to surface waters during winter-spring, among others.

At first, the fishing of this species was carried out by mistake, as the objective was to capture red king crabs. However, it was introduced to the market as an alternative, because its flavor is usually a little sweeter and lighter than those of other species.

Scarlet king crab (Lithodes couesi)

This is the smallest and rarest type of king crab in the Bering Sea and is found in the Gulf of Alaska, traveling from the eastern Pacific to San Diego. Because of this, fishermen don’t consider it viable to fish them, despite the fact that it’s considered a delicacy for its flavor.

The size of its shell is just 11.5 centimeters wide (4.5 inches), with a scarlet color that gives it its name. The species is usually found at depths of up to 180 meters (590 feet), although much is still unknown about this organism.

Blue king crab (Paralithodes platypus)

This decapod is considered the largest of the king crabs in the Bering Sea, because on average they’re usually slightly larger than that of the red giant. At present, they’re distributed on the island of San Mateo and the Pribilof Islands. However, outside of Bering, there are groups of these crustaceans, specifically in the seas of Japan and North America.

The appearance of this invertebrate is similar to that of the previous ones, with the exception of it having a bluish coloration on its extremities. Despite this, their shell is usually reddish-brown. Although it has all the characteristics to be commercialized, as its population was kept small, it was only allowed to be captured by the locals.

Thanks to the closure of its commercialization – which was imposed between 1990 and 2000 – its population increased. For this reason, the Alaskan government has now allowed the species to be traded.

Tanner crab and opilio crab (Chionoecetes bairdi and C. opilio)

Although they’re different species, these crustaceans coexist in the same habitats, which is why both have come to be called “snow crabs”. Both inhabit the Bering Sea, but they extend along the coasts of Alaska. In fact, it’s known that, due to their kinship, these species have hybridized, generating populations with characteristics of both organisms.

These decapods are much smaller than others on the list, since their shell barely reaches 7 centimeters (less than 3 inches) wide. In addition, they’re distinguished by two bumps on their back – near their mouth. Regarding its body, it usually has iridescent reddish-brown colors and protruding granules at the edges.

A group of crabs

Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister)

Although this species isn’t found in the Bering Sea, it can be caught around these waters. Its distribution covers the coasts of Alaska, reaching the Magdalena Bay, in Mexico. This decapod isn’t part of the king crabs, but it’s a good economic alternative to them, because it has a good flavor and a good population.

This crustacean has a grayish-brown color, with a smooth carapace up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) wide. These invertebrates usually inhabit depths of 230 meters (750 feet), in muddy or sandy bottoms, in which they protect themselves by burying themselves.

One of the crabs of the Bering Sea.

How do you fish in the Bering Sea?

The fishing season starts during the autumn months, mainly in the waters around the Aleutian Islands. Originally, trawls were used to catch fish and crabs from the Bering Sea. However, box-shaped traps were soon developed, which made it possible to selectively capture crabs.

These boxes consist of a steel frame surrounded by nylon meshes, which, together with the bait,  attract the crustaceans to capture them. Once this structure is released, it’s left on the bottom of the sea for a few days before collection, to allow time for the bait to work. In addition, depending on the area and depth they release the trap in, one or more species of decapods can be captured.

The task may seem simple, but it isn’t, as the challenge focuses on surviving the icy waters and extreme cold. In fact, the United States government considers it the most dangerous type of commercial fishing. This is due to the high number of accidents that ended in death for the members of the vessels.

Currently, Coast Guard personnel have been deployed that have managed to reduce mortality from this activity. However, the number of accidents is still high and there are still people capable of risking their lives for this “red gold”. In 2005, a documentary series called Deadliest Catch was aired, portraying the dangers of venturing out to fish in the Bering Sea.

Fishing regulations

Because all of the crabs cited are coveted species, fishermen overexploit these resources. For this reason, restrictions have been placed to control the situation. Now, boats can only keep specimens that are males and that measure more than 12.3 centimeters (5 inches) in width.

Releasing the reproductive females allows the populations of these organisms to regenerate, maintaining a balance between both parties.

Fishing for crabs in the Bering Sea.

Thanks to local government maintenance efforts, Bering Sea crabs have survived overexploitation. Although it seems strange, caring for these crustaceans means protecting the work of the fishermen and their families. In this way, there seems to be a future for both the animals and the fishermen. Nature doesn’t provide unlimited resources, but it does provide renewable ones.

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