Juneau shellfish biologist Gretchen Bishop took one look at a batch of tiny, frozen king crab legs Thursday and recoiled.
"I wouldn't have much hesitation in saying those would definitely be illegal" if caught in Alaska, said Bishop, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Bishop identified the legs - sold in Juneau's Safeway store until Friday - as blue king crab or red king crab.
Safeway confirmed the crab legs came out of Russia's Far East king crab fisheries, beset by poor enforcement and illegal fishing, according to U.S. and Russian fisheries experts.
Federal biologist Bob Otto in Kodiak put it bluntly in a phone interview Friday.
"The Russian fishery has gone to hell in a handbasket. I'm surprised they are selling any at all," said Otto, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service's Kodiak lab.
Otto said his conversations with Russian biologists indicate that "they are pretty despondent. They feel the situation is out of control. The stock is being abused and the corruption is at such a level that they can't do much about it."
Bishop said she's had similar conversations with Russian colleagues.
"They are just heartbroken over what's happening to that fishery," said Bishop.
Problems in the Russian king crab fisheries may not be high on U.S. consumers' radar screen but they have attracted debate in Japan, which also imports Russian king crab. The problems have rocked the Russian government.
Though it hasn't been proven, many suspect that a Russian governor based in Magadan, a sister city to Anchorage on the northern shore of the Sea of Okhostk, was murdered over corruption in the region's king crab industry or the gold mining industry.
The governor, Valentin Tsvetkov, set king crab quotas for the region. He was murdered on a Moscow street in 2002. and authorities opened an investigation that month that Russians later dubbed the "crab case."
That investigation resulted in convictions of three people - including the deputy head of the State Fishing Industry Committee - for plundering marine life. One suspect was recently arrested in Tsvetkov's murder investigation.
Problems in the Russian fisheries have continued despite recent efforts to crack down on the corruption.
In September, a federal Russian report found that from 2001 to 2003, 83,000 to 117,000 metric tons of illegally caught seafood - mostly crab and urchin - were unloaded in Japanese fishing ports.
According to Seafood.com News, a widely read seafood trade publication, the deliveries were said to be equivalent to almost half of the legal fishing quotas in Russia and had contributed to a noticeable reduction in stocks.
"President Putin threatened to nationalize the fisheries if they didn't clean up their act," said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Crab Coalition, based in Seattle.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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