At the sushi bar, “crab” is a category rather than a single animal. Depending on how and where you order, you may receive king crab, snow crab, Dungeness crab, stone crab, blue crab, or even surimi, which isn’t really crab at all. To make matters even more confusing, the crab may be from the United States, Canada, Russia, or Japan. Don’t get discouraged, though—it’s not as complicated as it seems.
King crab is usually considered the highest-quality crab available in the United States. These long-legged crustaceans stalk the depths of the northern Pacific and are harvested in Alaskan, Canadian, and Russian waters. All of these fisheries have had severe problems with habitat destruction and overfishing in the past.
Dungeness crab is rarely found outside the West Coast of the United States. It will almost always be specifically labeled “Dungeness” on the menu.
Stone crab is a small, thick-shelled crab from the southeastern United States. Rarely found at sushi establishments, its native waters are usually restricted to the Gulf of Mexico and the southern reaches of the Eastern Seaboard.
Blue crab (and the similar blue swimmer crab) is the ubiquitous crustacean most often used in “crab meat” dishes. It is generally caught in Asia or on the East Coast of the United States. Some sushi bars in New York, Maryland, and other Eastern states use American blue crab in sushi, but elsewhere it is usually imported from Asia. Blue crabs that have just molted are often served as soft-shell crab in spider rolls.
Many sushi restaurants will also offer a product known as “imitation crab” made from pollock or other fish. See kanikama for more information on this creation.
So here’s the breakdown:
King crab: Alaskan stocks are shaky at best, but Alaska is working on more effective management methods. Enjoy this crab in moderation, and choose it over Russian king crab, which is suffering from overharvesting, habitat destruction, and a general lack of management.
Snow crab: Both Alaskan and Canadian stocks have been severely depleted in the past. New management practices are aimed at stabilizing stocks, but their effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated.
Dungeness crab: Strong populations coupled with effective management have created a resilient and productive fishery. When available, this is a delicious and sustainable choice.
Stone crab: When these crabs are harvested, only one claw is taken. The crab is then returned to the water to regenerate its limb. This is a strong fishery with a low mortality rate—a good option compared to king, snow, or blue crab.
Blue crab: Heavy fishing pressures, habitat destruction, and the loss of juveniles as bycatch (animals caught unintentionally and discarded)—especially in the Gulf of Mexico—have challenged the resilience of this fishery. The Maryland and Virginia fishery has lately been the source of grave concern, with senators from both states calling for emergency regulations to deal with alarming stock declines. In the case of soft-shell crab, try to avoid imported blue swimmer crab. Very little is known about blue swimmer fisheries, and it is unlikely that they offer crab populations or their habitats sufficient protection.
Crab can be a difficult issue at the sushi bar, so it’s all the more important to discriminate between sustainable and unsustainable choices. Knowing the difference allows us to shift our demand to the fisheries that can support it and ease the pressure on those that are flagging.
It can be difficult to identify sustainable options when dealing with categories of seafood that present many different variables, such as catch method, country of origin, or species variant. It’s important to support seafood merchants that are willing to take these challenges on themselves and source only sustainable options. By allowing precautionary, third-party science to dictate its seafood selection, ilovebluesea.com — the world’s first fully sustainable online seafood marketplace — offers its customers the ability to purchase responsible seafood with confidence.