DFO unveils a poor outlook for snow crab

Stocks have declined 40 per cent from last year; 80 per cent since 2013

Published on February 27, 2017

Crab catch sitting on dock at Prosser's Rock

©Keith Gosse/The Telegram

It's not a pretty picture. In a technical briefing Monday, Darrell Mullowney, lead scientist for snow crab in the NL region for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the latest stock assessment on snow crab in the Newfoundland and Labrador region shows an overall 40 per cent decline in exploitable biomass from 2015-16.

Since 2013, the decline of exploitable biomass has been 80 per cent.

Exploitable biomass refers to the crab that are adult, and of legal size — a shell size greater than 95 mm — for commercial fishing.

The DFO numbers come from their own trawl surveys — one in fishing zones off the south coast each spring, and the other in northern fishing areas in the fall — as well as from reports from observers on commercial fishing vessels, the log books of the crab fishing fleets, and trap surveys conducted by DFO in inshore areas.

The decline in crab stocks, explained Mullowney, is due to two major factors: warming water temperatures and groundfish.

The warm water has created an ideal environment to help cod and other groundfish thrive, explained Mullowney. And cod like to eat crab.

The other dismal news is that the pre-recruitment biomass — the number of male crabs that are still molting and will grow to fishable size within the next two to three years — is also down.

According to the data offered by DFO Monday, the pre-recruitment indices have been low in most surveyed areas and were at its lowest observed level in 2016.

“No improvement, or further reductions, in recruitment are expected in the next two to three years,” Mullowney said.

The news of declining snow crab stocks is likely not a surprise to those who fish from the long liners that pursue the valuable shellfish.

Since a peak of 1999 — when landings in the province peaked at 53,500 tonnes — the catches have dropped to 42,000 tonnes in 2016.

“We have been providing advice for several years now,” said Mullowney, “and each year the numbers show decline.”

Mullowney was asked what the decline might mean for crab quotas this year for the inshore fleets.

However, the scientist said it’s premature to say.

“I don’t want to jump in front of the consultation process,” he said, referring to the meetings that DFO will hold with snow crab fishers around the province during March as the department prepares to make recommendations to the federal minister.

From those meetings, and the numbers calculated by science, the minister of DFO will determine the quotas for the 2017 fishing season.

Any drop in quotas will, naturally, have impacts on those who depend on the snow crab — both fishers, as well as processors and plantworkers.

The province’s Fisheries and Land Resources Minister, Steve Crocker, told TC Monday the crab assessment is a major concern, but the provincial government will need to wait to see how it fully impacts people.

“We’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the quota meetings which will be held in the next few weeks,” Crocker said. “But undoubtedly, this is going to take some substantial GDP out of our economy, there’s no doubt about it.”

Crocker said that, if necessary, the government will look at providing assistance and programs for employment impacts.

In 2016, according to DFO statistics, snow crab landings in this province were worth $274 million to the fishing fleets, with crab worth, on average, $2.97 per pound at the dockside.

At the end of the line — as the crab makes its way through processing lines — the value to the provincial economy is significant.

According to a 2015 report by the province on fish export values, snow crab was the most valuable seafood export for the province that year, at over $376 million.

Around the province, mostly in rural areas, hundreds of plant workers are employed on the production lines, processing and packing snow crab legs for market.