Juneau restaurant hit by Bristol Bay king crab season closure, skyrocketing prices

Derek Schneider at Tracy's King Crab Shack
Derek Schneider works with some king crab legs at Tracy’s King Crab Shack in Juneau on June 8, 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Tracy’s King Crab Shack has served Alaska king crab below market price for years, but the restaurant isn’t able to do that anymore. Owner Tracy LaBarge said prices have gone up 100%. 

“It’s not a small increase. It’s double what it was in 2019. So that’s been a tough one to take,” LaBarge said.

Crab shortages and inflation are hitting seafood restaurants across the country.

Those crab shortages are being caused by multiple factors. One of the biggest ones in Alaska is that there are just not as many crabs. This year, all major stocks of crab in Bristol Bay were low, not just king crab. 

Forrest Bowers manages commercial fisheries for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said that the number of mature male and female crabs has been declining for years.

Mature crabs are the ones that reproduce, and over the last 12 years, fewer and fewer crabs are reaching that age. 

“You know, in general, the reasons why productivity can be lower are that environmental conditions are unfavorable,” Bowers said.

Bowers said there are a lot of factors coming into play that can impact crab populations.

Environmental conditions could be related to effects of climate change — like warming water temperature or ocean acidification — or related to food scarcity or predators. Fishing and bycatch can also impact the crab stock.

The end result of this trend of declining crab stock is that Fish and Game closed the red king crab season in Bristol Bay, and that closure had a direct impact on LaBarge’s restaurant. 

“It’s kind of what we prided ourselves in, was always buying Alaska king crab, this Bristol Bay king crab,” LaBarge said. “So this is kind of the first time that we’re having to go, you know, buy Russian crab or Norwegian crab, basically, just to stay in business. Because the crab season is closed.”

Next season, she will still have other Alaska crabs, like Dungeness, snow or tanner. But not Bristol Bay king crab. 

And there’s still high demand for crab, especially overseas. LaBarge said live markets in China, Japan and South Korea are buying more crab, and that there is always a big push for crab around Lunar New Year.

Combine increase demand with the crab shortage and it’s made the price of all species of crab go up a lot

“We’re double in our pricing, which is a shock to people who have been longtime customers, you know, but it is what it is. We’re all just trying to survive,” LaBarge said.

Normally, LaBarge already has all her crab purchased for the next tourism season, but with the high prices, she said it didn’t make sense for her to do that. 

She hopes the prices will go down after the holidays and she can buy her crab then. But she also doesn’t want to wait too long and then not have enough crab either. 

LaBarge said this next tourism season will make or break her business. This year’s season was better than 2020 but she still operated at a loss and she can only do that for so long.

“The one thing we’re good at is we’re good at adjusting our menu, we’re good at adjusting our labor. This is 17 years now we’ve been doing this so we’re pretty good at adjusting to the market. But this has been a not a fun one,” LaBarge said.

LaBarge thinks sales next year will be better than this year, but that it’s still just a guessing game at this point.

Lyndsey Brollini

Local News Reporter, KTOO

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