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Americans Compete With Asian Local Markets For Blue Crab

Last week, I traveled to Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam to learn about the Vietnamese blue swimming crab fishery. Since 2009 a cross-sector partnership of government agencies, exporters, and WWF-Vietnam have been dealing with contentious issues related to the sustainability of this stock. In discussions with this coalition, I was struck by the contrast between their collective desire to restore the overfished crab population and their frustration that they could not seem to drive basic improvements quickly.   To understand how they got to this point, it’s essential to understand how the fishery evolved.

In the 1990s what could best be described as a bunch of seafood cowboys traveled to SE Asia and started a new fishery to meet the growing US demand for crabmeat. They were looking for less expensive sources of product similar to the famous blue crabs found in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

They set up a brand new value chain that stimulated the expansion of the Blue Swimming Crab (BSC) fishery across the region. This was not easy. To ensure good quality and meet US/EU food safety standards, one must catch and land the crab, cook it live, carefully pick the meat out of the shell so it doesn’t fall apart and loose value, and pasteurize it as quickly as possible. Once pasteurized, the product must be kept chilled for the long trip across the globe. After much trial and error, these entrepreneurs helped establish new small businesses called cooking stations and picking stations or mini-plants near landing sites. Soon, tens of thousands of artisanal fishermen were fishing for BSC across the region. In Vietnam alone there are 1500 small and medium-sized boats fish for blue swimming crab. Fortunately for these risk-takers, Americans are willing to pay a pretty penny for our crab cakes and those that got it right and got in early were rewarded.

Vietnamese crab boat. Photo by Miguel Jorge.
Vietnamese crab boat. Photo by Miguel Jorge.

Obviously this led to overfishing. Crab became scarcer and, with each passing year, the average landed size got smaller until a significant proportion of the catch consisted of juveniles that had not had a chance to reproduce. Small crabs lowered yields and the amount of the highly valued lump meat, which cut into profits. Catching so much juvenile crab also raised concerns about the status of the stock. These concerns arguably led in part to the creation in 2009 of the National Fisheries Institute Crab Council – an association of 18 major US crab importers that fund fishery improvement projects in five SE Asian countries, including Vietnam.

What these pioneering seafood companies did not account for was the strong and growing local demand for crab in some parts of Asia where they had set up shop. So, as supply went down, cooking station operators kept separating large, live crab for the local market. As I discovered in my recent trip to Vietnam, “Comrade” was willing and able to pay more for large crab than “Mr. Philips.” US importers had a choice: pay more or accept smaller crab. In response, most major US importers asked their Asian partners to set a minimum purchase size. Unfortunately, this is Asia where seafood consumers do not demand sustainable seafood, so while the West was pushing for certain quality and environmental standards, regional markets for crabmeat were far less picky. Low quality crabmeat from undersized crabs not acceptable to US markets continues to be frozen and distributed regionally.

Blue swimming crab. Photo by Miguel Jorge.
Blue swimming crab. Photo by Miguel Jorge.

This is a clear example of what happens when Asian and Western markets are demanding similar products from the same fishery. As purchasing power grows in Asia, the ability for Western buyers to drive sustainability through market leverage is significantly restricted. The conventional wisdom that in the absence of good enforcement, Western market leverage would lead the way to sustainability is becoming less true as Asia’s purchasing power grows.

Under these circumstances the partners in Vietnam have decided to build capacity for co-management, while focusing on working with the government to eliminate illegal fishing gear. Co-management is the sharing of decision-making and enforcement of fisheries between fishermen and government. When local communities and fishermen have a voice in setting policy and management guidelines, these rules are much more likely to be followed, resulting in lasting change in the fishery. Fishermen in Vietnam’s crab fishery catch undersized crabs not only because there is a market for the illegal product but also because they would not benefit directly from leaving the crab in the water to grow bigger. Therefore, to firmly secure these improvements, co-management efforts should align the fishermen’s economic self-interest with the long-term health of the fishery. With support from the Crab Council and a small grant from 50in10, the partners in Vietnam are beginning down this path towards a triple-bottom-line solution for this fishery.