Snow Crab

Commonly referred to as "tanner crab," the two crab species, Chionoecetes bairdi and C. opilio, were relatively unknown in the United States until the king crab stocks began to decline. Today, these crab species are marketed as snow crab and have emerged as the most valued of the crabs harvested in the United States (1). C. bairdi, the larger and thus more desirable of the two snow crab species, is caught only in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. The smaller species, C. opilio, is caught in the North Atlantic as well. Pacific C. opilio is caught primarily by Alaskan fishermen while Atlantic C. opilio, which is slightly smaller, is caught by Canadians. Canadian snow crab may be marketed as queen crab (5).

Snow crabs are members of the spider crab family. In the North Pacific, they occur broadly from the southeast coast of Alaska westward along the coast throughout the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. Snow crabs are caught in the winter and spring by the same boats that fish for king crab in the fall. Although only half the size of king crabs, snow crabs are still larger than most other species of crab. The largest, C. bairdi, occasionally exceed 3 lb and have a leg span of 2 ft.

Alaskan snow crab are harvested and processed in approximately the same manner as king crab and by the same fishers and processors. Snow crab is almost always marketed frozen and the product forms are similar to king crab; that is, clusters, claws, legs, and meats (fancy, merus, salad, and shredded). The yield of picked meats from snow crab is slightly lower than for king crab and averages 17%, ranging from 12 to 25% (9,11). Like fancy meat from king crab, frozen blocks of fancy snow crab meat consist of three layers: red meat (45%), white meat (35-45%), and shreds (10-20%). Snow crab has the same handling characteristics as king crab. Like king crab, care should be taken to ensure the product is well protected by proper glazing and packaging in order to prevent dehydration and subsequent quality loss during frozen storage.

A snow crab product that is popular in the Japanese market is called green crab, which is raw frozen snow crab sections. It is very important to handle, process, and freeze the snow crab quickly and carefully because of the tendency for a bluish to black discoloration to develop in the sections. Although there is no general agreement on the cause(s) for the discoloration (12), it may be the result of the enzymatically mediated oxidation and polymerization of phenolic compounds naturally present in crab (2). Thus antioxidants, sulfites, and chelating agents have been used to block the bluing discoloration. However, speed or quick processing is the best assurance in preventing the bluing, which will still occur and even develop at a faster rate after the frozen raw crab section is thawed. If crab are not cooked properly to destroy these enzymes, then the crab should be further processed quickly or consumed soon after thawing.

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