Sea change

The Gulf News (Port aux Basques) - - EDITORIAL -

You might see it at Prosser’s Rock, or in Ochre Pit Cove, or Twill­ingate. You might see at any one of scores of small ports and wharfs all over the prov­ince; some­times smaller boats, some­times larger, steam­ing to port with big loads of snow crab.

For years, it has been the high-value back­bone of the new fish­ery: af­ter the fail­ure of the cod fish­ery, the crab fish­ery was the big-ticket saviour.

Sure, there were fewer fish har­vesters in­volved; there were fewer li­cences than cod, and the bounty wasn’t split among so many. But there were jobs for ru­ral New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans, those fish­ing crab and an­other valu­able species, shrimp, and pro­cess­ing them for mar­ket. But the news has turned bad.

First, it was shrimp, and a pre­cip­i­tous drop in stock num­bers this year.

Now, the other boot has dropped, and crab num­bers have plunged, too.

The num­bers are star­tling: a sin­gle-year de­cline of 40 per cent in the ex­ploitable biomass, part of a falloff that has seen crab stocks dip by 80 per cent since 2013.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the fu­ture doesn’t look any brighter. The pre-re­cruit­ment biomass, the num­ber of male crab that are as yet too small to keep, were at their low­est level last year, mean­ing the over­all biomass won’t see im­proved num­bers for at least two to three years — if then.

What’s hap­pen­ing?

Well, the ocean around the is­land is warm­ing, which has a series of ef­fects, rang­ing from less suc­cess­ful spawn­ing in shrimp to much more suc­cess­ful spawn­ing in cod. And as tragic as it sounds, the long-hoped-for re­turn of the cod might be a big part of the prob­lem — be­cause shrimp and crab are prey for cod­fish.

You can watch video on­line from last Novem­ber of fish­er­men open­ing up the stom­achs of cod­fish and find­ing, in some cases, 30 or more shrimp, and in oth­ers, a hand­ful of young crab. What will it mean for quo­tas?

Well, as we learned too late with the cod col­lapse, what it prob­a­bly should mean is a sharp re­duc­tion in quo­tas. But just like with cod, there’s a clear and im­me­di­ate hu­man cost to cut­ting back fish­ing ef­forts — crab land­ings were worth $274 mil­lion in 2016. Sales of crab were worth more than $376 mil­lion in ex­port value to the prov­ince in 2015.

Take that money out of the hands of fish har­vesters and you can see a huge prob­lem.

It’s not just the loss of em­ploy­ment, but where the jobs could be lost.

There aren’t a lot of op­tions for em­ploy­ment in ru­ral parts of the prov­ince. The fish­ery is the en­gine for many cen­tres, and crab and shrimp are a crit­i­cal fuel.

Bat­ten down the hatches. A ru­ral storm is com­ing.

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