Japanese demand keeps Newfoundland crab industry afloat

Published on July 13, 2011
Lori Pearson, a quality inspector with Tavel Ltd. of St. John's, measures the carapaces of snow crab in St. John's harbour in this 2002 file photo.Photo by Joe Gibbons/Telegram file photo

Not long after a giant earthquake and tsunami wrecked Japan in March, concerns were raised about how it would affect this province's seafood industry.

Exports to Japan account for 40 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador's snow crab product, so there was a nervous wait to see if that country could buoy our seafood industry at the same time it was rebuilding from one of the world's worst natural disasters.

Four months later, the news is good.

Of the crab packed between June 25 and July 2, 48 per cent went to Asian buyers, Seafood.com editor and seafood analyst John Saxton said.

In fact, the Asian market - which now includes a burgeoning market in Korea - has taken "more than 14,000 tonnes of crab, which exceeds the amount taken by the Japanese market during all of last year."

Quoting industry sources, Saxton said Japanese buyers, who would normally taper off at this end of the season, were actually adding product to their contracts.

He said a shortfall in snow crab imports from Russia and live landings in Hokkaido, as well as the small amount of production in the Gulf, was helping Newfoundland's cause.

Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman welcomed the news of a strong market and the inclusion of Korea into the fold.

"This is one of the strongest years on record," he said. "We didn't know what to expect after the tsunami, but I can tell you that everyone is quite surprised and impressed at just how well Japan has recovered from such a devastating event," he said.

"As for Korea, the more markets that open up, the more buyers come into the province can only be a good thing for the industry."

Not even a strong Canadian dollar seems to hindering the export of seafood, Jackman said. "The key here is that inventories were low, Japan came into the market and America is still buying," he said.

The fishery is a volatile place, the minister acknowledged, and said the boom-bust cycle was always a concern.

"We need three or four years like this one in the crab fishery," he said.

"I can tell you that the fishermen I have been speaking to are always worried about being exuberant when it comes to prices. They know all too well that one year prices can be record high and the next can crash to all-time lows."

Last season, fishermen struggled with quotas and with prices. Crab with a carapace or shell width of four inches or bigger sold for $1.35, and those with carapaces less than four inches went for $1.05. This season, the prices have risen almost 60 per cent to $2.15 and $1.85, respectively.

With 90 per cent of the province's total allowable catch (TAC) of 55,560 tonnes landed, the snow crab fishery will soon draw to a close, and in some cases it already has.