TV crab boat captain warns of shortage on Japan market

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The captain of an Alaskan crab boat featured in a popular TV series told lawmakers on Friday that the United States (US) government shutdown may cause a shortage of US king crab in Japan.

"If the Japanese buyers don't have Alaskan product on hand for the New Year's holiday, they will source their crab from Russia," Wizard captain Keith Colburn told the Senate Commerce Committee.

"If the crab isn't caught, processed, and shipped out of Alaska by the second week in November, we stand to lose access to that market." Mr Colburn's boat is featured on the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch reality show.

Alaska's seafood industry contributed US$4.6 billion (S$5.7 billion) to the state's economic output, according to a 2011 report by the Marine Conservation Alliance.

In 2009, Alaska exported US$1.6 billion worth of seafood - less than 10 per cent of which was crab - to Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and Europe.

"A delay of even one week in the fishing season could mean that the opportunity to export to the holiday market in Asia would be missed, and Japan is the fleet's largest buyer," said the Senate panel's report on the impacts of the 2013 shutdown.

Mr Colburn said missing the holiday market would cut into his revenue by as much as 25 per cent.

"Market watchers are already noticing uncertainty in the Japanese trade press over the Alaskan supply," said Mr Colburn, who remarked that this was the first time in 28 years he has not been on the Bering Sea at this point in October.

Mr Colburn added that US operations are scientifically managed to prevent overfishing, unlike Russia's.

"The Russian king crab fishery is unsustainably managed and subject to a significant amount of pirate fishing," he said.

"This pirate fishing has already cost the Alaskan crab fleet an estimated US$500 million since 2000. If this shutdown continues, that amount will only increase."

The industry is approaching what many are calling a "fishing cliff" because the people who issue fishing quotas from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been sent home on unpaid leave as part of the government shutdown that began October 1.

While the fishing boats are run privately, they depend on government-issued permits and quotas as well as federal observers to get going.

If his and other boats in the Alaskan fleet cannot get off the docks and start fishing as planned October 15, high prices may hit world markets and the US fishing industry could lose millions of dollars, Mr Colburn said.

The Alaskan king crab season is only about two months long, but drives "hundreds of millions in economic activity and provides thousands of jobs," the capatin added.

"I'm a small businessman, in a big ocean, with big bills. And I need to go fishing."

The latest political crisis in Washington was sparked by Republican opposition to President Barack Obama's health care reform law, which passed in 2010.

Some 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed, in the first shutdown of the government in 17 years.

"It is crazy right now," said Mr Colburn. "I feel like we are putting Russians to work while we are putting American fisherman out of work." Mr Mark Begich, a Democratic senator from Alaska, concurred.

"They would love to see us fail," he said.