Spat between B.C. crab fishermen, DFO highlights importance of coastal shellfish fisheries

Workers at a new crab plant in southern Labrador are worried they will not earn enough money to qualify for employment insurance.

Harvesting shellfish has become more important to Canadian fishermen as other fisheries, such as cod on the east coast and salmon on the west coast, have declined.

But there are signs lucrative shellfish fisheries aren't immune from problems.

Crab fishermen working B.C.'s north coast are upset the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has delayed the summer opening of the Dungeness crab fishery until Aug. 1.

“We’ve never seen it open so late. There are millions of dollars being lost here,” Dan Edwards, executive director of the Area A Crab Association, told the Globe and Mail. “The kind of damage being done to these guys is irreparable. It’s their livelihood.”

[ Related: Crab closure frustrates North Coast fishermen ]

A DFO area manager said northern waters were declared off limits after sampling revealed opening the crab season now could damage the fishery. So far, samples have turned up mostly soft-shelled females and few hard-shelled males, Mel Kotyk told the Globe.

“If the evidence is not sufficient, our default position is closure," he said.

Angry crab fishermen apparently don't buy the argument, and they've withdrawn their participation in future surveys of the Dungeness crab population.

“We’ve worked for years without any problem. If the science is there, we’ll shut down,” said Edwards to the Globe. “But to manipulate data that is not sound is just unacceptable to our guys.”

Crab fishermen upset by the closure picketed DFO's offices in Prince Rupert, B.C., late last month, blocking access to the building.

DFO official Jeff Johansen told The Canadian Press at the time that the closure was ordered as a precaution because the test data being inconclusive.

"The fishery's managed for all Canadians, right, not just for the commercial harvesters, so we need to consider the conservation aspect of it," said Johansen. "So we need to be precautionary when we don't have the data, confidence, in leaving the fishery open."

But fisherman Phil Edwards, Dan Edwards brother, said it was a bad decision.

"It was a non-science based decision and it directly affects the incomes of 150 families, and it's critical to the Prince-Rupert-Masset-North Coast Area," Edwards told CP.

Dungeness crab catches have declined in recent years, the Globe noted, but still amounted to $27 million in 2011 along the West Coast. The Crab Association said the Area A catch was worth an estimated $15 million and provides work for 300 people.

[ Related: New Brunswick fishermen steamed after feds boost lobster size by one millimetre ]

Sustainability is also an issue on the East Coast, where Atlantic lobster fishermen are staying home because of low prices and concerns within the market about the fishery's environmental friendliness.

A glut of lobster has pushed down prices to $3 a pound, below the $5 fishermen say they can profitably take out their boats.

A blockade of Prince Edward Island ports in May brought the issue to a lobster boil.

“We’ve had enough. ... None of us can afford to fish any more and we all might as well stay home,” fisherman Kent Clements told The Canadian Press at the time.

In a story last May, the Globe also noted European customers have come to prefer humanely caught and processed lobster, where the crustaceans are stunned with electrodes before being cooked and packaged.

Canadian Maritime lobster is also competing with lobster from neighbouring Maine, which not only fetches higher prices but has also been designated a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council, the Globe said.