Minister of fisheries goes king crab fishing on Fish Nation tour

Minister of Fisheries Elisabeth Aspaker examines a crab on her first crab fishing trip Saturday.
Minister of Fisheries Elisabeth Aspaker examines her first red king crab Saturday.

Minister of Fisheries Elisabeth Aspaker went on her first king crab fishing trip in Bugøynes Saturday for the conclusion of Fish Nation,


Minister of Fisheries Elisabeth Aspaker went on her first king crab fishing trip in Bugøynes Saturday for the conclusion of Fish Nation, a five-week seafood tour up the Norwegian coast to celebrate the rich variety of fish products available in Norway. At each stop along the way from Oslo to Kirkenes, Bergen-based chef and owner of Lysverket restaurant Christopher Haatuft studied and prepared local seafood while the Fish Nation team interviewed local fishermen and documented the towns, people, food and recipes. 

The Fish Nation project was created to encourage innovative thinking about the Norwegian seafood industry and promote simple ways of cooking seafood at home, as well as to give a leg-up to a nation-wide “Norway is all about fish” campaign. 

Sponsored by the Norwegian Seafood Council and hosted on its internet portal, the Fish Nation tour wanted to bring some pride to the table in homes across Norway. 

“Norwegians themselves often do not understand how important the fish is for Norway” Minister Aspaker told BarentsObserver. 

In 2013, Norwegian exports totaled 61 billion Kroner and 2.3 million tons of seafood, and the fishing industry included at least 40,000 jobs. Each year, Norway exports 95% of the fish caught along the coast, so finding the best markets and maximizing the value of fish products is a top priority. 

The increasing success of the Norwegian fishing industry has not been without set-backs. The system of regulation and quotas for each species are complex, says fisherman Edgar Olsen. With a 1,000-year history of fishing, Norway has had to develop rules and regulations to manage fisheries and make sure the industry is sustainable. 

A sustainable industry is one that can be fished year after year and make a profit without exhausting the natural resources of the sea or compromising possibilities of success for future generations. Cod fishing, for example, has become stable and sustainable. But regulators, fishermen and researchers are still determining the best course to sustainability for new products like the red king crab. 

The red king crab was imported from the Pacific Ocean to the Barents Sea in the 1960s by Russian scientists aiming to increase its biological productivity – to have more crabs for use by humans. The species spread east along the Norwegian coast and became a nuisance for fishermen finding the giant crabs tangled in their nets. Starting in 1991 an annual experimental crab fishery was tested, and in 2002 Norway launched a commercial red king crab fishery. Russia launched a commercial king crab fishery in 2004.

 Today, the crab’s reputation ranges from exotic tourist attraction to the cause of a major upset in the aquatic ecosystem, but Minister Aspaker says the species is too new to tell whether it is to blame or some other factors. Human activities such as fishing, oil and gas exploration as well as climate-driven factors like ice cover and mixing of waters from the Atlantic also affect the health of the sea bed, according to joint Russian-Norwegian research reports.

“The crab has had an impact, of course, but there could also be other reasons the fauna in the sea is disturbed,” Minister Aspaker says. “But it is important for us to regulate and to find out how we should harvest the crabs so that the numbers of crabs are not out of control. Hopefully we can have both the possibility to have the fisheries and the crab in the future.” 

The Future Crab Industry

Just as new species can affect the ecosystem, new generations of fishermen and researchers impact the direction of the industry. Historically, dried fish was the traditional way in Norway. In the years since World War II, freezing began to dominate the industry and then later, in the 1970s and 80s, fresh-fish exports. In the last five years the industry has embraced a new trend - live export. The future for the Norwegian crab industry, and possibly shrimp as well, is moving toward this new method. But it’s not easy.

“You can imagine, fish are at least a hundred meters under the sea one day and then a few days later they are on a plane several kilometers above the earth – a big change. Survival rates can be low,” says Edgar Olsen, a fisherman in the Varangerfjord in Finnmark. 

Researchers like Russian scientist and crab export enthusiast Roman Mikhailovich Vasilyev are working to learn as much as possible about effective live-export methods. Vasilyev began working with Norway King Crab company in Bugøynes in 2008, when the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography helped the company design a facility for live export research. He is now working privately as the head of research for Norway King Crab testing all aspects of the export process from volume of crabs in tanks to water quality and heart activity during transportation.

“There was no other option for me than to stay here and continue this research, and actually I have decided to take it deeper,” he says. “The secret is in the details.  We must be totally sure that from the beginning to the very end the crab feels okay in our complex. When we are totally sure the crabs are active and strong here, then we send them to market.” 

Fishermen like Olsen are also adapting to the modern realities by not only fishing but hosting tourist trips as well as engaging in research and paying attention to market statistics. “Live export brings a higher market value because you get paid for 100% of the crab instead of the 40% or 60% you get if it’s processed here in Norway,” Olsen says. 

Finding markets that are willing to pay a higher amount for the higher quality fish in Norway is very important, Minister Aspaker says. 

A Sustainable Industry

The fishing industry in Norway is a complex system of regulations, import and export business decisions and adjusting seasons and quotas. Creating sustainable fisheries required decades of observations, map-making, and data gathering on fishery conditions including joint research between Norwegian and Russian scientists. 

But for the Norwegian family, the long history and struggle to bring the fishing industry to its current level of success may seem extraneous when preparing food for dinner. The Fish Nation project is largely about reaching people at a place where they can relate – in the kitchen. People may not be interested in keeping track of changing quotas or spawning seasons, but some advice about the grocery list, a few good recipes and the success stories of local fishermen will have impact. 

Ending the tour in northern Norway is significant. It was the fishing village of Bugøynes that first began to sell the crabs, launching the beginning of a king crab export business that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last ten years. 

To complete the Minister’s crab fishing trip and the end of the Fish Nation tour, chef Christopher Haatuft prepared a seafood meal of king crab and shrimp served in a local café and museum in Bugøynes. The dinner brought together a group to celebrate the Norwegian seafood legacy and discuss the future direction of Norwegian seafood exports and what is best to do with the king crab.

The answer? “Feast,” says the chef. Celebrating fresh seafood is always a good option on the Norwegian coast.