The crab kings

Stalin, Putin, and climate change inadvertently turned Norway’s most desperate fishing spot into a global seafood capital.

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Near the end of 1991, the residents of Bugøynes, then a village of about 300 people in Norway’s Arctic north, ran an ad in the national newspaper Dagbladet, begging somebody to relocate them en masse. Cod and other whitefish, once Bugøynes’ bread and butter, were disappearing, and no one was quite sure why. The hamlet’s only fish plant had closed years earlier. The local fishing industry had essentially collapsed, leaving the villagers near the Russian border stuck with few ways to earn a living. “The time has come,” their ad read, “to put everything behind us and start again somewhere else.”

One cold afternoon this past February, Leif Ingilæ rolls a cigarette and laughs hoarsely as he recalls the results. “We got offers from French vineyards to move all the residents there to pick grapes,” he says. “But we figured if everyone goes, we would all become alcoholics.” Mostly, the younger generation moved south in search of work, while the lifers survived on unemployment benefits. Ingilæ, whose family goes back generations in Bugøynes, first went to sea in 1967, when he was 15 years old. When the newspaper ad ran, it seemed his time in the area was up; his boat was one of just three anchored in Bugøynes’ harbor. Still, he stayed. A year later, on a routine fishing trip in Varangerfjord—the wide, clear fjord that links Bugøynes to the Barents Sea—he found in his gill net a huge, strange crab.

Leif Ingilæ chose to stay in Bugøynes when the cod fishery collapsed more than thirty years ago. Today he makes a good living catch invasive red king crabs.

Its claws were exceptionally muscular, its six legs studded with spikes, its mouth wreathed with tiny “jaw legs” reminiscent of The Predator. Scores more, some pushing 25 pounds and with leg spans beyond 5 feet, started appearing in other people’s nets. The community quickly learned that the crabs’ powerful limbs could wreak havoc on fishing gear—tangling or tearing nets, stealing bait from longlines—and that the creatures could devour most any small marine life in their path. They seemed to be vacuuming the sea clean of the food sources many whitefish species need to survive, including bivalves, sea stars, even larvae.

“We hated them,” Ingilæ says. He called Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR), which identified the interloper as Paralithodes camtschaticus, the Kamchatka red king crab. It was an invasive species from Alaska, one that Soviet researchers had brought to Russia’s side of the Barents Sea decades earlier. It also happened to be a delicacy, worth billions of dollars a year.

The crab’s popularity with wealthy diners started to change things for Bugøynes. Its numbers would need to be controlled to prevent it from spreading west and chewing up Norway’s primary fish stocks, but for the locals here, perhaps it could take the place of the old cash crops. The Norwegian government established an experimental crab fishery in the region in 1994 and permitted commercial fishing of the species about a decade later. The desperate village, as well as others in the region, began to eke out a living catching crab instead of fish, alongside a much bigger Russian industry. In the meantime the original stocks of the crab in Alaska collapsed. An Alaskan fishery had harvested them aggressively while water temperatures rose beyond what the species could take.

By 2022, Russia controlled 94% of the multibillion-dollar global market. That was until Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine that February and the US, along with many of its allies, banned the import of Russian seafood. In the weeks before the ban took effect, some importers raced to pack their warehouses with frozen legs and claws. California-based Arctic Seafoods Inc. paid more than $300 million for a massive order of Russian crab, about 6.5 million pounds. It was also swindled out of 6,000 pounds of that haul, according to an indictment against a Florida man who allegedly fooled the company by posing as a buyer for Safeway. (Arctic Seafoods didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Thanks to the ban on Russian seafood, Norway exported nearly all of its nearly 5.4 million pounds of red king crab in 2023, a 42-percent annual increase worth $110 million.

As it turned out, most major US and allied retailers immediately pulled all Russian seafood from their shelves. Red king crab can be kept frozen for as long as two years, but the negative publicity didn’t seem worth it. A historical accident at the intersection of geopolitics and climate change had left only one place able to sate American appetites for the stuff: Ingilæ’s backyard.

Sitting with legs crossed in the cabin of the same stout 36-foot trawler he’s owned for four decades, Ingilæ leans the elbow of his smoking hand on a dinette table. He’s wearing a traditional Norwegian wool sweater, a gray beanie, and black-framed glasses. His face is as creased and ruddy as you’d expect from someone who’s spent a lifetime at sea. Across the harbor, boats line up at the dock of the old fish plant, now home to the exporter Norway King Crab. In the early years of catching the crabs, Ingilæ recalls, he was paid less than 5% of today’s going rate. This particular morning, Norway King Crab is offering an all-time high of $27 a pound. It’s selling the catch for close to double that price.

Now, Ingilæ’s boat is one of 917 in the area. While Russia is still catching vastly more red king crab (a quota of 28 million pounds last year) than Norway, the latter exported just about all its haul of 5.4 million pounds in 2023, a 42% annual increase worth $110 million. At Norwegian prices, US importers want the crabs alive, because ultrahigh-end restaurants can get far more for them that way. “We have places that will charge $900, $1,000,” says Roman Tkachenko, chief executive officer of Direct Source Seafood LLC in Washington State. “The days of buying [frozen] king crab at 35 bucks and selling it at retail for 45, they’re gone.”

In just three decades, the crabs have gone from scourge to savior.

In Bugøynes there’s no longer talk of a mass exodus. Its fishermen, including Ingilæ, describe a comfortable life complete with annual vacations to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. Whatever doesn’t get exported forms the backbone of a growing crab-themed tourism industry. For Ingilæ the turnaround has yielded a rare sight among fishing towns everywhere these days: Both his son and grandson work on his boat. Today his younger peers can scarcely imagine a time without the crabs. There are, however, some signs that they might have to.

A worker sorts freshly caught crabs by hand.

In just three decades, the crabs have gone from scourge to savior. They still need to be managed as an invasive species, but now that they’ve become a pillar of the regional economy, the Norwegian government needs to take care to sustain them, too. Last year, after the IMR discovered a significant decrease in the weight of adult male crabs, the government cut the 2024 quota by almost 60% and ordered a two-month pause in fishing from March to May. A generation too young to remember the Dagbladet ad is getting a taste of the fear Ingilæ remembers well.

In 1959, the Soviet Union’s aptly Brutalist-sounding Central Commercial Department for Acclimatization tasked a biologist named Yuri Orlov with resuscitating an up-to-that-point unsuccessful program, started in 1930 under Josef Stalin, to develop a red king crab fishery in Russian waters. In 1960, Orlov and his team plucked nine females from the waters around the Kamchatka Peninsula, which forms the western edge of the Bering Sea, and placed them in small plexiglass boxes filled with seawater and chilled with ice. The crabs were loaded onto a military transport plane and flown across Eurasia to Murmansk, not far from the Norwegian border. From 1960 to 1969, Orlov oversaw the release of about 2,500 adult crabs, 10,000 juveniles, and 1.5 million larvae into a fjord that connects Murmansk to the Barents Sea. By the ’90s this Red Army of crabs had established itself in Varangerfjord, just off the shore of Bugøynes.

At first everyone blamed the cod decline on the red king crab. “People didn’t need a scientist to convince them,” says Norway King Crab’s CEO, Svein Ruud. “Cod was going out. King crab was coming in.” The damage the crab caused to fishing gear was an obvious problem and remains so today. Now, though, the evidence is a bit more mixed, as Ruud and the fishermen are eager to stress. Research has indeed shown that mollusks, mussels and scallops disappear from areas of seafloor where there are large concentrations of red king crab, as do small forage fish that are a critical food source for cod. Then again, red king crab are voracious eaters of sea urchin, which had decimated the kelp forests vital to maintaining the area’s ecosystems.

What seems certain is that the crab isn’t done expanding its territory. “All indications suggest that this invasive species will spread further north in the Barents Sea, as well as southwards along the coast of Norway,” IMR researchers Lis Lindal Jørgensen and Einar Nilssen wrote in 2011. Melina Kourantidou, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Denmark who’s studied the economic impacts of the red king crab in the Barents Sea, says the species’ range could be further amplified by shipping, via ballast water, as vessels increasingly travel once-frozen routes through the Arctic Ocean. “There’s a lot of concern in the maritime community about invasive species in the Arctic,” Kourantidou says.

To slow the population’s expansion into other valuable fishing waters, the government allows unlimited crabbing anywhere near the lucrative whitefish stocks of the west coast, home to one of the largest cod fisheries in the world. Still, only residents of Bugøynes’ home county, Finnmark, can obtain commercial licenses to catch and sell the red king crab, a restriction the Norwegian government hopes will keep the species both sustainable and contained to the north. Norway King Crab set up shop in Bugøynes in 2007, Ruud says, because there was a lot of shuttered fishing infrastructure in Finnmark that could be repurposed, including the fish factory. “We had all these old buildings with no activity,” he says. “By then, I had seen live king crabs sold at a very high price in places around the world, so I said, ‘Let’s do that here.’ ”

A fishing boat coming in to the Norway King Crab processing factory.

On a windy, unseasonably warm morning in Bugøynes, Ruud and his chief operating officer, Jørn Malinen, walk through the vast holding area of Norway King Crab, where they keep the catch they buy for a couple of weeks to make sure the crabs are in shape for shipping. Sixty-one tanks, some as large as 580 gallons, whir with oxygenated water kept in the red king crab’s ideal temperature range of 35F to 53F. To the crabs, Malinen says, “they’re more or less Jacuzzis.” It’s also a bit of a cleanse. Red king crabs can be safely held in tanks for about a month without food. After a weekslong soak in the filtered seawater while fasting, the crustaceans, Rudd says, “shit out” any impurities. Then they’re loaded into portable tanks, trucked to Oslo Airport and flown overnight to Hong Kong, Dubai, Las Vegas, and other cities around the world. Some of the tanks hold 550 pounds of crab, which will sell for about $100,000 in the fanciest restaurants.

With the same T-bar gun you’d find at the Gap, each crab’s shell is tagged with a unique QR code that links to a web page showing its weight, the day it was caught, the name of the person who caught it, more info about their boat, and a 90-second video featuring wintry Norwegian scenery. This is partly an assurance that the crab in question isn’t one of the millions still being shipped from Russia to China, Japan (which has imposed higher tariffs on Russian goods rather than banning them), or elsewhere. It’s also superb marketing for the kind of diners who want to pick out their crabs from a restaurant’s tank. Phil Campbell, formerly the executive chef at Klaw, a Miami restaurant that built its own 4,000-gallon tank system to hold live red king crab, says customers paying $11 an ounce are hungry for every detail. Some, he says, take the tags home with them.

Compared with the fleets of Russian “factory ships” that stretch almost 200 feet, Norway’s crab boats are tiny, topping out at 40 feet, and are usually crewed by one or two people. While this puts a ceiling on how much a captain can bring in, it also means they’re not splitting the haul many ways. Erling Haugan, who has a degree in online marketing, came to Bugøynes in 2007 because Norway King Crab hired him to help in the office, but he soon grew convinced that “the fishermen were having better days than me.” With zero experience, Haugan bought his own boat, quit his job, and started crabbing. He recently purchased a second boat for $230,000 and says, if he were to sell it today, it would fetch more than $350,000. “The income from fishing is good,” he says. “But I’m a little bit worried, because it’s not good for the environment when you’re taking too much.”

Tourists out on a “king crab safari,” on which they gather crabs from the traps and then wait in a sauna while a cook prepares their catch.

Other fishermen in Bugøynes and elsewhere in Finnmark are selling their catch not to Norway King Crab but to tourists. For $155, one local company offers “king crab safaris” consisting of a short boat ride to smaller pots that are hauled up and opened for customers, who can reach inside and retrieve the surprisingly docile crabs themselves. Afterward the tourists are whisked off to a nearby sauna while a cook prepares their catch. At the Snowhotel, where $658 will get you one night in a claustrophobic room made of ice, guests can pay an additional $244 for a safari on a nearby fjord, where pots are surreptitiously stocked with live crabs trucked in from Bugøynes and other towns each morning. Although there’s a population of wild crab in the fjord, there isn’t enough to satisfy the number of safari guests, says Snowhotel’s king crab manager, Sten-Roger Seipæjærvi, who estimates that a record 20,000 guests booked the tour this winter. “In this fjord we cannot get what we need,” he says, “so of course we have to fill up the pots.”

A bit of a rivalry between Norway’s $17 billion tourism industry and the fishing boats has grown as crab quotas have tightened. Tourism boosters say every live experience they sell to a visitor creates more jobs and yields far more money for the community. Fishermen grumble that the tourism industry wasn’t slapped with the same two-month pause as the boats selling to Norway King Crab. “This is stupid,” Haugan says. “It’s the same crab, and tourism is making the same problems.”

Neither group likes to talk about the cautionary tale of Alaska. At its peak in 1966, the US state’s fishery produced 90 million pounds of red king crab, which, as a species native to that area, didn’t cause similar invasive devastation. Although they haven’t completely disappeared from the Alaska area (and there remains a small export business in the seas around Japan), their recovery has been hindered by significant increases in water temperatures. Norway’s crabs are at risk of a similar outcome. According to a 2018 study by IMR scientists, temperatures throughout the Barents Sea’s water column have sharply increased since the mid-2000s, largely because of retreating sea ice. Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide also means acidification, which has been shown to have an impact on red king crab larvae and molting cycles.

Local officials have found a more convenient villain in the black market. In 2019, Norwegian police uncovered a criminal network that was illegally catching and smuggling almost 100,000 pounds of red king crab worth millions. In 2022 customs officials seized 2,000 pounds of legs and claws from two vehicles stopped on a highway outside Oslo. “When you have a product that is worth so much, that’s very enticing for some people,” says Magnus Mæland, the mayor of Kirkenes, the nearest city to Bugøynes. “Just search Facebook for a little while, and you’ll find people from the south asking, ‘Can you fix me some king crab?’ ” Mæland isn’t alone in speculating that crooks might be at least partly responsible for last year’s decrease in red king crab biomass.

The fishing village of Bugøynes, population 230, sits 500 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, on vast bay off the Barents Sea.

The years of intensive legal fishing haven’t helped, however. Nor have the water temperatures, which, according to one study of the northern Barents Sea, have been warming 1.2C to 2C per decade since the 1980s. In 2022, Norwegian and Russian scientists warned in a joint study that the recent warming in the area had been unprecedented, albeit less dramatic than in parts of Alaska.

In Bugøynes, quotas are almost always the subject du jour. They’ve created and destroyed fortunes, as well as made the difference between kids’ leaving for the cities or staying home. While the village’s new status quo feels less fixed than it did a year ago, locals are still talking in whens, not ifs. “I think it will be four or five years before the bigger crabs return,” Ingilæ says. In the meantime the highest-end restaurants with the wealthiest customers still want to believe the seafood they eat is as sustainable as is possible in a world where humans consume 344 billion pounds of fish and shellfish each year.

As the Barents Sea continues to warm, and the war in Ukraine rages on, demand for Norwegian live crab is likely to intensify in the US. Should the conflict end and the ban be lifted, Direct Source Seafood’s Tkachenko says, there’s no doubt American customers will want Russian crab again. The bigger question, he says, “is if there’s going to be anything left.” Instead of being hurt by the ban, Tkachenko says, Russia has simply turned to China, which is buying enormous volumes of live crab.

Campbell, formerly of Klaw, envisions a distribution hub somewhere in the US with a whole warehouse full of the crab Jacuzzis. Norway King Crab’s Ruud aims to ship crab at much higher volumes by sea, loading them into the same portable tanks he uses for his Oslo-bound trucks. On the unseasonably warm winter day when he gives a tour of the tanks, Ruud later entertains a group of seafood purveyors, restaurateurs and chefs from Michelin-starred eateries in Zurich. Having taken a crab safari, including a stop at the sauna and a dip in the 36F fjord, the Swiss group enjoys the catch, steamed in seawater, at an ultramodern Nordic‑style home right next to Norway King Crab. Much of the home’s bottom floor is a test kitchen, built for high-profile visits like this.

Across the harbor, a south wind coming off the mountains rocks Bugøynes’ fishing boats in their slips. Nearby, a new dock with room for 16 more vessels sits empty. It was built on the high of 2023’s record quota but before the 2024 cut. As Ruud’s Swiss guests begin cracking into the pure-white, salty-sweet meat of their catch—a dinner easily worth thousands of dollars—a local pianist arrives to play Nobuyuki Tsujii compositions and other classical standards. “If you’re still hungry, don’t worry,” Ruud tells his guests while they eat. “There is plenty more crab.”

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