Poor signs for N.L. snow crab

Ocean warm­ing one of the fac­tors

The Pilot - - Front Page - BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK

Re­cent sur­veys by the Department of Fish­eries and Oceans sug­gest a poor out­look for the crab fish­ery within the next few years.

ST. JOHN’S, NL — Once la­belled a nui­sance, snow crab is 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 crabs 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 crabs, 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 will 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, crab wasn’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.

PHOTO BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/THE TELEGRAM

Crab traps are hauled aboard the Cana­dian Coast Guard ship Vla­dykov in Con­cep­tion Bay on the last day of the Department of Fish­eries and Oceans snow crab sur­vey for 2017.

PHOTO BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/THE TELEGRAM

Department of Fish­eries and Oceans bi­ol­o­gist Dar­rell Mul­lowney mea­sures the crab cara­pace. In ad­di­tion to this mea­sure – across the crab’s back – the sur­vey records the size of claw and whether crabs are gen­er­ally younger or older, in­di­cat­ing ev­ery­thing from po­ten­tial pro­duc­tiv­ity to pos­si­ble con­tri­bu­tion to the commercial fish­ery.

PHOTO BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/THE TELEGRAM

In ex­plain­ing the dif­fer­ent crab states, DFO bi­ol­o­gist Dar­rell Mul­lowney laid out a se­ries of cap­tured crabs. The smaller one at far right is a fe­male. The rest seen here are male crabs, mov­ing up in age, right to left. The pink­ish tinge in one case sug­gests a newer shell.

PHOTO BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/THE TELEGRAM

Af­ter be­ing hauled onto a coast guard ves­sel in crab pots, snow crabs cap­tured in a DFO sur­vey are trans­ferred to plas­tic bas­kets on deck, be­fore be­ing picked out by hand, mea­sured, as­sessed for colour, rough age, and gen­eral health be­fore be­ing re­turned to the ocean.

PHOTO BY ASH­LEY FITZ­PATRICK/THE TELEGRAM

DFO teams as­sess crab shells, colour­ing and size in reg­u­lar sur­veys, es­ti­mat­ing ages. One of the ways to more ac­cu­rately de­ter­mine age in­volves a lab­o­ra­tory re­view of a piece from around the eye, in the area seen at the edge of the fin­ger­nail in this pic­ture. Since th­ese ex­per­i­ments kill the crab in the process, they’re not con­ducted on the thou­sands of crabs cap­tured in an­nual stock sur­veys.

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