The provincial snow crab fishery suffered a big hit in the marketplace this year.

After landing more than 29,000 metric tonnes (about 65 million pounds) this season, the industry saw it sell for a low $223 million this year—a big drop from the $307 million earned in 2019.

According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Covid impacted the crab fishery by first creating a delay in the start of the season. The industry needed time to develop extra safety protocols to protect the health of workers on and off shore. Some areas opened in June, and the last of the crab was hauled to shore by August 7.

Slow Start, Stronger Finish for Crab

“It was delayed upon request,” DFO spokesperson Kevin Guest told The Independent in a recent interview. “But my understanding is once it started, it did well, quotas were caught relatively quickly.”

“It’s the old market supply and demand,” he added.  “With Covid, there’s a lot less people going to restaurants, so the demand is relatively down.”

Snow crab sold for about $3.45 per pound on average this year—compared to $5.21/lb in 2019 and $4.82/lb in 2018.

Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, said that Covid certainly has made things “very, very complicated” for all species this year. But he pointed out that as the crab season went on, the prices improved and fetched much higher prices before it ended.

“It’s a mixed bag of how we feel ,” he told the Independent. “It wasn’t a disaster, the resource was good but the market… like a lot of species, Covid was used to widen their margin. Harvesters, fish processors did better as the market strengthened later on.”

One surprise was that supermarket sales picked up and “was very popular” unlike pre-Covid fishing days.

But the novel coronavirus wasn’t the only thing impacting the fish game of Newfoundland and Labrador this year.

Cod Stocks Remain Critical

According to the latest science released by DFO, cod is in “critical” trouble in Area 3P along the southern coast of Newfoundland and is not expected to recover any time soon.

“Under various fishing scenarios, there is high probability (>99 %) that the stock will remain in the critical zone between 2021 and 2023,” stated the report by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS), a national body that oversees the scientific review process and makes recommendations to DFO.

Area 3P in the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) stretches along the southern Newfoundland coast from Cape St Mary’s to Burgeo Bank, as well as St. Pierre Bank and Green Bank. France and Canada share the quota.

“The precautionary approach requires that removals be kept at the lowest possible levels,” the CSAS report warns. “Natural mortality rates have increased over the last decade and were approximately four times that of fishing mortality in 2019.” They note that 3Ps ecosystem is undergoing “structural changes” such as “an increase in proportion of cod in poor condition,” ongoing warming trends, and an increase in the biomass of warm water fishes like silver hake.

In 2019, there were 3,500 tonnes of cod landed in that area—compared to 4,700 tonnes in 2018.

Sullivan said it’s well overdue for DFO to deal with the over-abundant seal population that’s feasting on the cod in that area. Covid impacted the province’s seal industry this year too, preventing it from opening at all.

“Cod stock has been a concern for harvesters for many years,” he said. “The inshore peoples rely on it for decades and decades and it’s their main fishery and they certainly see a decrease in landings,” he said. Sullivan noted DFO “needs to put more faith in the people who are dependent on the resource.”  

“(DFO) sees the problem is predators, and that seal is a natural predator, but there doesn’t seem to be a commitment to deal with the seals.”

Seals were identified as a problem in other water areas around the province and were addressed, and Sullivan says “it’s hard to understand” the reluctance to deal with seals in Area 3P—especially since the department allows offshore fishing to continue there. According to past practice, when the 3Ps cod quota is set below the 10,000 ton threshold, offshore trawlers are removed from the fishery.

“FFAW-Unifor continues to raise the alarm on the impacts from seal populations and from offshore draggers to this vulnerable stock,” the union wrote on its web November 20 following the report’s release. “Fish harvesters are rightly concerned about the future of their fishery and the impact of seal populations and offshore draggers are having on 3Ps cod. DFO has made it clear that natural mortality is a significant driver of the continued poor status.”

“Fishing mortality was at its lowest point in decades”

In the meantime, the Atlantic Groundfish Council said they were “quite happy to see” that the report noted more mature cod are reaching the age to spawn. But they were disappointed to see the 2020 survey offshore was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“We know that stock growth takes time, so we don’t expect profound changes in a single year,” Kris Vascotto, executive director, stated November 21 on the council’s website.

“Although the stock continues to be in the Critical Zone, the 2020 assessment confirmed that cod fishing is a minor component of the overall mortality of the stock and fishing mortality was at its lowest point in decades,” the council’s site reads. “Following years of the Atlantic Groundfish Council advocating for a conservative approach on catches to encourage the stock to grow, this assessment signals that efforts of the AGC are beginning to show positive results.”

Quotas for cod and crab have yet to be set for next year. They are usually announced in February or March after the department has had time to review the science, assessments, and the landing reports and values—as well as hear from industry stakeholders, unions, independent scientists, Indigenous interests, plus factoring in politics and other socio-economic concerns.

“We have to weigh all those factors and there’s definitely a challenge,” Guest, DFO’s spokesperson, told the Independent. “It’s more than just science.”

The price loss suffered in the crab industry was the biggest for all species caught offshore this year to date.

As of November 30, the landed value for all species stood at roughly $592 million. Last year, the season’s overall final value topped over $800 million. The Crustacean fishery (including crab) accounted for over $417 million this year’s total value for all species.

Cod landings are smaller annually but roughly worth between $20-30 million. The season remains open in some areas until December 31, but as of November 30, 12,570 metric tonnes of Atlantic Cod have been landed for a total value of about $17.5 million—a price of $0.63/lb.

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