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Editorial: Sea change

Crab catch sitting on dock at Prosser's Rock
Crab catch sitting on dock at Prosser's Rock

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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