King crabs Norway’s new seafood success in the High North?

The red king crab industry could become another Norwegian seafood success story. Right now, it is just where Norway’s salmon industry was 30 years ago. Once again, researchers are contributing valuable help.

By Andreas B. Johansen/Else Lie. Translation: Darren McKellep/Victoria Coleman
Production manager Ronald Ingilæ with an 11-kg king crab, the facility's largest. Photo: Andreas B. Johansen.

Production manager Ronald Ingilæ with an 11-kg king crab, the facility's largest. Photo: Andreas B. Johansen.

The red king crab made its threatening entry into Norwegian waters years ago. Frequently discussed in the media, this crab is often cast as the invading villain with alarming headlines such as “Devouring Norway’s Fauna”, “Biological Terrorism” and “Bounty on King Crab Recommended”. The red king crab may be a nuisance, but it holds great economic promise; many consumers want these tasty creatures up from the deep and onto the dinner table.

“There is great market potential in selling live king crabs,” says seafood company founder Svein Ruud. “With the combination of Norway’s leading expertise in aquaculture and the high demand for this delicacy in Russia and Asia, the business opportunities were obvious to us very early.” He and several local players have started up the company Norway King Crab Production in Bugøynes in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway.

Norwegian-Russian research collaboration is critical

Earning a good profit on king crabs is difficult. The harvesting season is limited and its meatiness (the meat volume in the legs) is often poor. The challenge lies in delivering fresh crab of high quality year-round. Fortunately, research is showing the way.

“We are testing different types of feed and investigating the crab’s nutrient absorption. The goal is to increase meatiness and meat quality in the shortest possible time,” explains Dr Nikolina P. Kovatcheva, one of the world’s most eminent researchers of crustaceans. She heads a laboratory at the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO), which has entered into a cooperation agreement with Norway King Crab Production. At any given time, two researchers from Dr Kovatcheva’s lab in Moscow are stationed in Bugøynes.

Red king crabs are caught in the ocean, then fed at the Bugøynes facility until their meatiness is sufficient to be sold on the market for a high price. It takes about two months of feeding to “fatten up” the crabs for sale. The facility can handle 1,000 live crabs and has plans to double that capacity in the course of 2009.

Effective funding from Research Council programme

In 2008 Norway King Crab Production was granted funding under the Programme for Regional R&D and Innovation (VRI), administered by the Research Council of Norway. The financial assistance from the programme, though limited, can nevertheless be a huge help to Norway King Crab Production and other small companies that conduct user-driven research.

In 2008 Norway King Crab Production was granted funding under the Programme for Regional R&D and Innovation (VRI), administered by the Research Council of Norway. The financial assistance from the programme, though limited, can nevertheless be a huge help to Norway King Crab Production and other small companies that conduct user-driven research.

“The VRI programme is a low-threshold initiative for private enterprise, functioning like a seed capital fund,” explains Lars Krogh, regional head of the VRI programme for Finnmark County. “When Norway King Crab Production approached us, they already had a network of contacts in place. We helped them get the cooperation going in practice.”

“Just having an application approved by the VRI programme is itself an important recognition,” adds the seafood entrepreneur Mr Ruud.

Ready for delivery

Shipments of live red king crabs have now begun. Labelled with ID chips, the valuable loads are being delivered to the first Russian buyers. Some crabs are destined for water tanks in restaurants, such as the lobster tanks we are used to seeing. Others are headed for customers who will process the meat near market and sell it as fresh, processed products.

Objective number one is to build up a healthy, profitable business in Bugøynes. But Svein Ruud believes these crabs can become a major industry. “The sea is full of crabs and the demand in foreign markets is high. This is where Norway has to recognise a golden opportunity.”

Source: The Research Council of Norway.

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