Alaska: Bering Sea: Jan. 15 until quota is caught; Southeast: Feb. 15 - March 1. Atlantic Canada: March-July
• “Dirty” shell color and barnacles.
• Bluish meat color (indicates undercooking and/or poor cleaning.
• Crystallization in meat (a sign of thawing and refreezing and/or slow freezing).
• Excessive saltiness indicates crab was not cooled properly prior to freezing.
• Low ratio of body to leg meat (60% body: 40% leg meat is typical of high-quality pack)
• Section packs will often come with some “broken” legs, but should be less than 10% broken.
• A good value, snow crab is an excellent retail item, which can generate high-volume dollar sales on ad specials.
Widely distributed in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, snow crab is the crab that keeps the crab houses cranking and the retail cash registers ringing.
The name snow crab is a marketing name for Chinoecetes opilio, a species that is found in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans. The largest commercial fisheries for snow crab are in the winter off Alaska and in the summer off Newfoundland.
In Alaska, both Chinoecetes opilio and the larger C. bairdi, which is fished only off Alaska, are called “tanner” crab on the fishing grounds. In Canada, snow crab are also called “queen crab.”
The snow crab fishery was developed in Alaska in the mid-1960s, when crabbers started fishing bairdi, which averages 3-5 pounds, compared to 1 1/2 -2 1/2 pounds for C. opilio. In less than five years, bairdi catches soared to almost 35,000 tons, temporarily exceeding landings of king crab.
The opilio fishery in Alaska really didn’t take off until 1978, after bairdi landings began declining rapidly. Today, opilio catches dominate the Alaska snow crab fishery, which begins each January and typically runs through March or April, depending upon the size of the quota and the ice conditions.
As is frequently the case with Alaska’s crab fisheries, landings of snow crab vary wildly. From a high of 110,000 tons in 1998, landings have plummeted to just 13,000 tons in the year 2000.
Supplies of bairdi have been almost non-existent in recent years, as the Bering Sea fishery has been closed since 1996, although 1,000 tons of bairdi are landed each winter in the waters of Southeast Alaska.
Snow crab have been an important fishery off Atlantic Canada since the mid 1970s. Unlike Alaska, though, catches off Atlantic Canada have been growing consistently. During the 1990s, for example, Canadian snow crab landings have grown significantly, from 26,000 tons to almost 75,000 tons.
Canadian biologists believe the decline in cod, which are a natural predator of snow crab, are one reason snow crab (and shrimp) landings have soared off Newfoundland.
In Alaska, snow crab are processed the same way as king crab: after live crab are butchered, the sections are cooked and frozen in liquid brine. In Canada, however, blast freezing is the norm.
Snow crab are sold as sections or “clusters” (4 walking legs and a claw arm), typically graded 3/5 oz., 5/8 oz. and 8 ups, with 5/8 oz. sections the predominant size for opilios. Cocktail claws and “snap ‘n eat” legs are also offered by many processors.
Until five years ago, most of the Newfoundland snow crab catch went into labor-intensive meat packs, due to government regulations aimed at keeping plant workers employed. Those rules have been relaxed, however, and more than 80% of the province’s production now goes into sections.
The meat yield from opilio is just 17%, compared to about 25% in king and Dungeness crab.
The highest priced snow crab comes from Canadian producers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Prince Edward Island, many of whom produce bright, clean crab packed to the rigid grading standards of the high-end of the Japanese market. Alaska crab, much of which is also exported to Japan, is next, followed by crab from Newfoundland, which tends to be smaller and darker in shell color.
Chinoecetes opilio, C. bairdi
Snow crab (U.S.), Queen Crab (Canada and Europe)
Opilio 1 1/2 -2 1/2 lbs.; bairdi 3-5 lbs.
Live to cooked sections: 60%; live to cooked meat: 17%; cooked sections to cooked meat: 28%.
LIVE; FROZEN: Sections (clusters) graded 3/5 oz., 5/8 oz. and 8 ups (bulk or soldier pack). Cocktail claws, snap n’ eat legs, split legs. Meat sold in frozen 5-lb. “combo” packs (60% body: 40% leg ratio is typical of high-quality pack).
STORAGE & HANDLING:
Properly glazed, frozen sections will store for up to a year. Once thawed, snow crab has a shelf life of 3 days. Hold frozen snow crab at -5 to -15°F.
Because it is cooked before freezing, snow crab is prepared and eaten similar to king crab. Cocktail claws are a popular delicacy, with the meat easily removed and dipped in cocktail sauce or butter. Legs are sold in sections, and are cracked and eaten hot or cold, usually with drawn butter. Snow crab meat can be used in salads, soups, omelettes, soufflés, and a wide variety of other dishes, but be careful not to dry it out as it is already cooked.