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Business and Economy

Maine Seafood Dealers Weigh Proposed Jonah Crab Fishery

Courtesy University of Maine
A Jonah crab.

PORTLAND, Maine - Regional fishery regulators are in the process of crafting a management plan for Jonah crabs. This long-overlooked species of crab has typically been harvested only as by-catch - a by-product of the much more lucrative lobster fishery. But the last few years have seen a boom in the value and size of the fishery.

A truck backs into the loading bay of Freedom Fish on Portland's working waterfront. This seafood distributor supplies grocery chains across the country, says owner Joseph Ray. The company also supplies local restaurants with lobsters, thanks in part to the 15 lobster boats kept on its roster.

And in among those lobsters, there are always some Jonah crabs to be found and sold. "They're by-catch, they come in the traps, the guys save them, throw them in a tote and bring them in," Ray says, "and we've been paying about 50 cents a pound for them."

Ray says Jonah crabs tend to be seasonal. So with summer barely underway, they've not really started showing up yet this year. "They come mostly in the summertime when our boats are catching shedder lobsters, and we do, like, 200 or 300 every other day, pieces."

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
The loading dock at Freedom Fish in Portland.

Ray says Jonah crab numbers in Maine have remained fairly steady, and modest, the last few years. But it's a different picture if you head a little further south. "Landings have increased over six-fold," says Megan Ware, from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates a number of coastal fisheries between Virginia and Maine. "There were almost 17 million pounds of Jonah crab landed in 2014."

Ware is talking about the increase in Jonah crab landings between 2000 and 2014. There's also been a more than 800 percent increase in the value of that fishery over the same time period, exceeding $13 million by 2014.

Ware says the vast majority of Jonah crabs are being caught in New England waters - although not as far north as Maine. "Approximately 95 percent of the catch is from Massachusetts and Rhode Island."

These are the same waters where lobster landings have trailed off in recent years, leading to the development of what Ware calls a "mixed crustacean fishery, "with the lobstermen catching both the lobster and Jonah crab during different seasons, so that they can really make minor adjustments to their traps to be able to catch Jonah crabs."

So with Jonah crabs now being targeted, and landed in ever greater numbers, regulators are putting together a management plan to avoid the species being overfished. Among the measures being considered are the introduction of a minimum catch size, a permitting system for the fishery and protections for egg-bearing female crabs.

These kinds of safeguards make sense to many in the industry, including Jeff Holden, who ran the Portland Shellfish company for 35 years. "I think it's a good thing that they do have a managed fishery for the Jonah crab," Holden says. "It's a valuable fishery for a lot of people." Holden says it should be regulated in the same way the lobster fishery is.

State officials also support the idea. Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said in a statement that a management plan for Jonah crab would be an appropriate step in establishing a sustainable resource.

For some seafood dealers however, Jonah crabs are more trouble than they're worth. 

"When we're busy we really don't have time for crabs," says Peter McAleney, who owns New Meadows Lobster pound in Portland and does not stock Jonah crabs. "Not right now," he says. "There's a few lobstermen that bring them in, but we don't have a regular market for it, so really I don't want to bother with it."

Also, says McAleney, although the meat is delicious, Jonah crabs don't ship well and spoil very quickly. "If they're weak and die they're no good within a matter of seconds, so you have to get rid of them. It's not like a fish or a lobster - you know they can be weak and you'd have a good 12 days on them as long as they're kept cold."

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's proposal for a Jonah crab fishery is open for public comment until July 24.