“The north didn’t perform as well,” begins Darrell Mullowney, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stock assessment biologist for snow crab, in reference to the northern coast of Newfoundland and the southeastern coast of Labrador, referred to by DFO and harvesters alike as 3K and 2J, respectively.
“They couldn’t take the quota because of last year’s concerns. We are seeing a decrease in exploitable biomass in those areas. Our survey trends gave us indications the stock was in decline in the northern areas.”
The first clue for DFO as to why this trend is taking place is a warming of the oceans that has been taking place in this region of the Atlantic since the mid to late 1990s.
Traditionally, snow crab and other shellfish perform well in colder waters and are better able to reproduce in an environment with fewer predators.
Cod and other groundfish - crab’s natural predators - fare better in warmer waters, and have been making good use of the transition, with both DFO and harvesters reporting greater shoals of capelin returning to the waters and cod numbers on the upswing.
For the time being, snow crab still seem to be doing quite well in most parts of the province, but as Mullowney notes, the ocean has a way of regulating itself.
“The Grand Bank is performing the best out of all the areas in Newfoundland, they had no issues taking their quota, compared to everywhere else.
“Counter to what one might expect, the waters of the Grand Bank are generally colder on the bottom, than in the north. We think those waters are still warming. We think they are holding their own better than in the north. In the long run, we think the south will probably perform a little better.”
He said the natural flow of Arctic currents will continue to favor the Grand Banks, but should other areas become more affected by warmer waters, precautions will be taken.
As waters warm, crab are more likely to molt at different times of the year. Currently, crabs are molting early in the spring, before the fishery starts, but as temperatures change, so do crab molting patterns and there are more instances of soft-shell crab.
“We did notice (soft shell crab this year) and we did close grids in different area. Most of the grids we closed tended to be in the northern areas.
“We’re always concerned when we see it (soft-shelled), we do see it everywhere, but it appears to be more dense in the northern areas.”
From the perspective of the union that represents fishers, changes in ocean temperature are a cycle that has to be monitored and respected. Knowing that certain species do well in certain conditions and adjusting accordingly when those conditions change will be one of the best way to move forward on the issue, says said Bill Broderick, inshore director with Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW).
“One of the things that my dad told me - I grew up in a fishing family and fished all my life - is ‘one thing about the fishery is it constantly changes. You have to change and do something else with it.’ That’s probably what we are looking at now.”
He said soft shelled crab has to be interpreted for what it is, a good sign that crab in a given area are reproducing and growing and he agrees with DFO that the best practice is to leave those areas alone when instances of soft shell are noted.
“It’s a part of the biology of the crab and it’s good to see. It’s sometimes a real issue where we can’t actually fish because we’ve had a really heavy molt in an area. It’s a good sign for the future, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t fish on it when it’s soft.”
The problem with that, says Broderick, is what will those who rely on that industry do in the meantime while there is a lull in that industry due to natural conditions or the application of practices for long-term benefits.
“Maybe in some areas we are too heavily dependent on (the fishery), but we don’t have a lot else in rural Newfoundland, it’s the age-old problem. All the other resources, like with oil, that’s benefitted the Avalon, but it hasn’t benefitted the outport communities. The forestry industry is probably at an all-time low, so that’s not there.
“We have to continue to do the things we’re doing, because we’re doing some things right; we are watching the resource, we are doing the surveys, we will have to continue to do that. If we get into trouble, which we might in the north, then we will need some assistance rather than let everybody go bankrupt in an area.
“Maybe we will have to transition people into something else.”
He feels if there is no plan of action in the event that the trend of warming waters continues, the results will first be felt hard in the north, then all across the province.
“I think both the harvesters and the processors will be hard hit, if you don’t have catch to process, all along the northeast coast of the province.
“I still think there’s a future in fish, we haven’t done enough as a people as a province as a country to support these people. We’re looking at now building an aquaculture industry, and they should, but I think they have to put dollars into the other industries, especially now if we have to diversify again.
“If it’s worth saving, I think we have to invest some money into it. Some of the money coming from oil, it needs to get invested somewhere else other than inside the Avalon.”