For those who remember the years before the northern cod moratorium, there had long been a sense of foreboding. Fishermen were seeing signs. Cod had become smaller and less plentiful, and they were not showing up when and where they were supposed to, and there were noticeable changes in the ocean.
Instead of taking measures to reduce pressure on the resource, the industry kept going at it until what was long feared, occurred. The cod fishery as we knew it was gone.
In the wake of the cod crisis, a new opportunity presented itself — a healthy and growing shellfish resource, most profitably snow crab.
The crab fishery developed — not without its controversies, as with any fishery in this province — but it grew to become an important economic factor in the survival of the fishing industry and the rural areas of the province.
Last week, the provincial government released statistics that indicate the total value of seafood production in the province is about $1 billion, with total production volume reaching 137,000 tonnes — mainly due to crab landings. (The top three exports by value were snow/queen crab (24,570 tonnes valued at $266.5 million), shrimp (57,700 tonnes valued at $234 million) and clam (4,973 tonnes valued at $49.7 million).
The news release noted that employment growth in the fishery was slowed by competing employment opportunities and an aging workforce. Still, over 20,000 people worked in the seafood industry last year. Amazing, given the dismal outlook in the early 1990s.
Despite modern optimism with the numbers, if you listen, you will hear that sense of foreboding again.
Many crab fishermen in major crab fishing zones 3K and 3L (adjacent to the east and northeast coasts of the island part of the province) are seeing a change in the crab resource.
Fewer crab in the pots, more young crab in the bellies of codfish, growing cod stocks in crab-fishing areas.
In response, crab quotas have been decreasing. In Division 3K, for instance, the overall snow crab quota decreased by 22 per cent in 2012 to 9,438 tonnes from 12,053 tonnes in 2011. A further decrease is expected this year.
On another level, the crab fishery — as with other species — continues to be negatively affected by high operating costs, a strong Canadian dollar, fluctuating markets and prices.
Fisheries Minister Derrick Dalley said “protecting and growing our seafood industry is a responsibility of great importance for us all.”
Dalley is right. Co-operation is key to ensuring a strong fishery for the future. However, the time to achieve a better level of co-operation among all levels of government and players is now, before the crab resource dwindles to an unsustainable level.
Without a healthy crab resource, there is no hope for a viable and sustainable industry.
Maybe it’s time we pay more heed to the warnings from crab fishermen.
History shows us that lingering feelings that something bad is about to happen is never good in the fishery.
After the crab is gone, there may not be another species to pick up the slack.