Once labelled a nuisance, snow crab are now key to Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishing industry, accounting for $274 million of $708 million in landed value in 2016. And that success story has become a problem.
Higher crab prices are masking lower quota. Shellfish numbers are falling off, with no relief in sight.
Aboard the Canadian Coast Guard ship Vladykov this week, crabs captured in Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) traps were being pulled from the water, dumped into orange, plastic baskets, pulled out, measured and categorized before being dumped back. These were among the last of the crab checked for the 2017 inshore survey, ongoing since May.
The survey work has involved about 35,000 crab taken from bays around the province. DFO biologist Darrell Mullowney told The Telegram the mixture on this last day in Conception Bay was similar to what his team has seen since the start. The baskets held a few commercial crab, but also crab dark with age, not large enough and with little sign of the young crab needed to sustain the fishery or expand.
The official survey results won’t be released until early next year (after going to DFO’s stock assessment branch and peer review), but generally speaking, Mullowney suggested there is continued decline, with ocean warming a significant factor and things like predation increasingly important.
“We were very good at it when things were up, we predicted it to go down, and I stand by our stance right now,” he said, when asked about potential criticism of the science, whatever the final numbers.
The current message is not coming from just one person or survey, or even just in the last couple of years. In 2013, for example, Mullowney co-authored a paper with Earl Dawe, Eugene Colbourne and George Rose — “A review of factors contributing to the decline of Newfoundland and Labrador snow crab” — published in the journal Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. It stated the drop in numbers would continue. It also warned more significant declines in northern areas would eventually also be seen off eastern Newfoundland, into the Grand Banks.
Fish, Food and Allied Workers president Keith Sullivan doesn’t dispute the science, or ongoing need for concern and even change.
“Some individual harvesters have seen massive cuts over the past couple of years and considering environmental conditions, just water temperatures, that’s not expected to improve or be just a short-term decline,” he said in a recent interview. “So the focus now, what we need, is to make sure we’re getting as much value as possible.”
Yet the value depends on pricing that is largely beyond the control of local fishermen or processors— involving quotas set in other jurisdictions, international currencies, consumer habits and more.
Apart from industry doing the best job possible, Sullivan said the hope is crab quotas will stabilize, particularly since plant workers require volume in addition to price. “If we can have this population somehow stabilized, it’d still be a major contributor, maybe not as major as it has been for a while. Then, again, we’re looking at other opportunities for other fish and that’ll be an important piece of this story,” he said.
The union has been outspoken on cycling back to groundfish, but the value per tonne there is far less than with the shellfish.
Notably, crabs weren’t always so important to the local industry, or wanted around at all.
“Some people fishing on the east coast of Newfoundland reportedly avoided certain areas altogether, believing that the crab density was so high that it was not worth the nuisance,” stated “In a Pinch: Snow crab and the politics of crisis in Newfoundland,” an article published in 2012 in Labour/Le Travail, the journal of Canadian labour studies.
A Department of Fisheries and Oceans report from the summer of 1967 recorded how turbot fishermen in Hants Harbour at the time were reporting nuisance crab in their nets, with similar stories following from Bay de Verde, Old Perlican, Winterton, Heart’s Content and Bonavista Bay.
Suggestion was made to try an experimental fishery for Newfoundland queen crabs (the common name was later switched to snow crab). There was investment in research and a pilot plant in Hants Harbour, extracting meat.
And while there were hurdles to overcome, the potential was clear.
“It is not necessary to stress the benefits that a thriving crab industry would have for many of the outports of Newfoundland; what is mainly required is to find crab grounds in the adjacent waters,” the DFO report stated.