Safeway swiftly withdrew a cache of small king crab legs for sale at its Juneau grocery store Friday after local ocean activists accused the company of selling juvenile king crab from Russia.
Safeway, Alaska's largest buyer of seafood, also sent out a chain alert Friday to its 1,815 stores in North America, telling them about the Russian product.
The United States and Russia set minimum size limits for harvested king crab to allow young crabs to live long enough to reproduce, though enforcement in Russia is lax.
Cherie Myers, spokeswoman for Seattle-based Safeway, said the incident appeared to be limited to a single purchase order for the Juneau store. She declined to identify the store's seafood buyer.
The problem is wider than a simple mistake in a purchase order, Juneau activists, politicians and scientists said.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, a fishing industry group, demanded to know who brokered the crab legs to Safeway.
"The key question is who is selling this in the United States," said Mark Vinsel, the group's executive director.
Vinsel said he is concerned about how cheaper, smaller and possibly illegal king crab imports could undercut Alaska's struggling king crab fisheries. The incident shows a need for consumer labeling that better identifies global conservation problems, he said.
State Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said, "Clearly the most serious and the biggest question is whether they (U.S. or Russian companies) are selling juvenile crab and putting it into the domestic and the Alaskan market."
Several Juneau scientists and a local seafood processor believe it wasn't a one-time mistake by one company.
"I've seen those undersized red king crabs for sale in several Juneau stores for a number of years," said Tom Shirley, a marine ecologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks fisheries program in Juneau.
"My concern was that the crabs were usually sold as Alaskan king crabs. If that were true, they would be illegal. The folks at the counter were always unaware of the source of the crabs, and defensive of their product, and I never pursued the matter," Shirley said.
Juneau seafood processor Mike Erickson said he has watched some unusually small king crab legs show up in local stores over the last three or four years.
In recent years Russia's Far East fisheries have been fished nearly to the brink of extinction.
"I'd think ... oh my gosh. They are babies," Erickson said of the crabs. "You'd never see a king crab in Alaska (harvested) with those size legs."
Oceana, an international ocean conservation non-profit with an office in Juneau, wrote on Friday to Steven Burd, Safeway's president and chief executive officer, urging him to stop selling "small king crab legs" from Russia.
"It not only hurts Alaskan fishermen; it fails to promote healthy sustainable oceans for our planet," wrote Jim Ayers, director of Oceana's Pacific region, in his letter.
Within hours, Safeway complied with his request.
Safeway, which merged with Alaska chain Carr-Gottstein Foods Co. in 1999, deals with large Alaska seafood companies - many of which have purchased Russian king crab in recent years.
Myers, Safeway's regional spokeswoman, said, "Normally everybody orders from our Alaska vendors. They sometimes may order through another system. ... That might have happened," she said. "The good news is that this (product) is not approved to be in our stores at all."
According to a 2004 king crab report by Seafood Watch - a Monterey Bay Aquarium program advising U.S. consumers about the ecological status of their seafood - some of the larger companies that packed Russian king crab in 2002 included Trident, Icicle Seafoods, Norquest, Nova/Sun Wave, Ocean Beauty, FAVCO, Orca Bay Seafoods and Deep Creek Custom Packing.
Seafood buyers depend on their relationships with brokers in order to assure the quality of their product, said Glen Reid, with the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, which has purchased Russian crab, according to the company's Web site.
Grocery stores do not need to label king crab's country of origin. Nor will they have to under a country-of-origin law scheduled to go into effect in April 2005. However, the product must leave seafood plants in boxes labeled either a product of Alaska or of Russia.
Oceana activists said Friday they were displeased the Juneau Safeway did not label the small crab legs as Russian though it voluntarily labeled much of the other seafood in its fish counter. Yet, Oceana's Jim Ayers said, the local store employees stated the king crab's Russian origin when asked.
"Alaska's Safeway stores generally do a good job of promoting Alaska products," Ayers said. "But clearly, Safeway's CEO and leadership can do a much better job of seeing to it that this kind of product isn't even available in their system."
The Seattle-based Alaska Crab Coalition and the United Fishermen of Alaska are now worried that pre-cooked king crab is not included in upcoming country-of-origin labeling rules.
Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, said he went on record "pretty heavily" in support of country-of-origin-labeling last summer, when many titans of the U.S. seafood industry were roused against it.
"I'm glad we did now," Thomson said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.