Rocky start for crab harvest
Price dispute, oversupply has impact on 2013 season
It’s mid-morning on April 29 and a light drizzle is falling in the distance as a vehicle enters Port de Grave, having navigated the winding, hilly roads that bring residents and visitors into this rugged, scenic fishing port.
As the ocean nears, the pavement is damp and the cool air smells of seawater and rain. The scent of freshly harvested crab becomes prevalent as the bluish-green water emerges on the horizon.
Walking down a steep wooden staircase, the sound of dockworkers chatting and laughing nearby can be heard, while large fishing boats coast into their temporary resting spots alongside the wharf.
Crew members on the 65-foot Atlantic Sea Clipper offload hundreds of blue and black plastic containers by hand and crane over the narrow gap between the vessel and the dock.
The boat’s captain, 34-year veteran fisherman Glenn Petten, stands nearby, watching his crew offload the valuable cargo. The routine is wellrehearsed and efficient.
Now we have to protect the crab. Newfoundland depends on this fishery.
The grunts are low, but the strain can be seen on the faces of labourers as they stack the heavy containers onto pallets. The lidless containers are in view, and nestled inside are hundreds of ice-covered North Atlantic Snow Crab, having recently been plucked from the ocean bottom by hundreds of specialized pots that lure in the long-legged crustaceans in search of an easy meal.
Too much crab to process
This is the second haul for Petten since the season began on April 20, and it is successful. Some 50,000 pounds of crab are offloaded from the holding compartment, weighed and sorted, and then moved by forklift into an awaiting truck. It’s then shipped to a processing plant in Valleyfield, Bonavista Bay.
But there’s a problem. Not long after arriving in port, Petten is told the plants are overloaded with product, and he should sit tight for a couple of days.
“There has been so much backlog at the plant they need us to wait,” he explains. “Our plan was to go tomorrow, but now we have to hold off.”
Welcome to another day in the never-dull Newfoundland fishery.
It’s the latest development in an already rocky start to the 2013 crab harvest, which was delayed for just under three weeks because of a price dispute between harvesters and proces- sors.
Once resolved, fishermen were eager to harvest their catches, which created another dilemma — a glut.
— Glenn Petten, captain of Atlantic Sea Clipper fishing boat
Not wanting to jeopardize quality, processors demanded a slowdown, meaning highenergy fishermen like Petten had to cool their heels.
A sustainable resource
For five days at a time, Petten and his crew face the cold and unpredictable Atlantic waters, setting and hauling crab pots, sorting and tossing back crab and packing containers with ice for the journey back to shore. There is no time to spare.
Petten says rules are constantly changing and regulations are becoming stricter to continue to produce enough crab for the 115-million pound quota.
While on the water, the Atlantic Sea Clipper crew sort through their catch and immediately throw the females and smaller crab back in the water. Only male crabs with bodies larger than 3.75 inches can be landed, Petten says, adding that is how the resource is sustainable.
“If we look after the small (crab) and the females, and we put them back in the water as soon as they come on board the boat, they’ll live to reproduce,” he explains. “That is what keeps the crab stocks going.”
In April 2013 North Atlantic Snow Crab were added to the Marine Stewartship Council sustainability list because of sexual and sizing selection practices, and also for new twine requirements for crab pots implemented this year.
“If every fisherman loses two crab pots, that’s a lot of pots on the bottom. Crab are in there and they’ll just die because they can’t feed. Then more will climb in and die,” he describes. “With the biodegradable twine, once the pot is in the water too long, the twine will break and the crab will escape.”
If there were no crab fishing
Standing at the wheel on the bridge of his ship, Petten describes what he believes the outcome would have been if the crab fishery did not begin this year, or if the crab stocks were no longer sustainable.
“It would be devastating to the Newfoundland economy,” he says. “Back years ago people thought there was no end to cod fish, but there was an end in 1992. Now we have to protect the crab. Newfoundland depends on this fishery.”
It is not only the crab fishermen that rely on the industry. The dockworkers, plant workers and some truck drivers also rely on this fishery.
Petten said his boat burns between 100,000 and 150,000 litres of fuel each season, and crews consume between $500 and $600 worth of groceries each trip. It’s the same for the roughly 50 other fishing vessels that homeport in Port de Grave, which is one of the busiest fishing ports in the province.
Petten also recognizes that many people have worked only in this industry their entire lives. He is one of them.
“Every dollar I have ever made in my life came from some sort of fishery. I have never made a dollar on land,” he states, not noticing the slow sway of his boat. “And the local economy benefits significantly. Our salaries all go back to the economy.”
Petten does not want to see another season delayed like this year.
“Everyone has to make a dollar in this industry. The processors have to make a dollar, the fishermen have to make a dollar. Let’s come up with an idea so everyone gets their share,” he suggests. “Everyone collectively has to get together and make sure we come up with some sort of solution so we don’t end up spending two or three weeks fighting over the price of crab again.”
Glenn Petten discusses the crab fishery on the bridge of the Atlantic Sea Clipper on April 29 after a successful haul at sea.
Dave Andrews operates the crane that lifts containers of crab out of the holding compartment of the Atlantic Sea Clipper.
Selby Pottle stacks containers of snow crab from the fishing boat Atlantic Sea Clipper.
Atlantic Sea Clipper crew member Robert Marsh waits to unload a container of snow crab.