Empire editorial: Hold the juvenile crabs

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

As distasteful as it was to Juneau consumers and ocean activists to find undersized Russian king crab legs in an Alaska supermarket last week, Safeway's prompt response and recall was sweet.

Safeway said it would pull the small legs not just from Juneau, where discerning seafood consumers can spot the difference, but from all 1,815 of its stores in North America. That's good news, coming from the largest buyer of Alaska seafood.

What remains troubling, though, is how the crab legs got here in the first place. A Safeway spokeswoman said it appeared to be a one-time purchase, and she declined to identify the store's seafood buyer. Some experts said they have seen small crab legs - clearly illegal if caught in Alaska waters - for sale in various stores for years. If so, the need for vigilance at the seafood counter and beyond will not ease with this one happy ending.

Some may see labeling of seafood's origin as a pet project for Alaska lawmakers pandering to constituent fishermen. Perhaps as well as anything, the crab caper illustrates that it isn't so. Consumers have a right to know not just that they're supporting their own communities, but that they're not supporting unscrupulous fishing practices. The lawless frontier of the Russian crab fishery threatens to destroy itself. In response to last week's discovery in the Juneau market, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service said he's surprised Russia still has any to sell. But while it still does, and while it abuses its stocks by harvesting juvenile crabs the likes of which Alaskans must throw back, Alaska fishermen are being undercut.

The United Fishermen of Alaska's director has demanded to know who brokered the crab legs to Safeway. It's an important question that the state's commerce officials and industry groups should pursue so they can alert Lower 48 consumers as well.

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