N.L. snow crab population remains healthy, though market uncertainty persists
Newfoundland and Labrador's most valuable fishery may be encountering rough market conditions, and the economic outlook for this year is bleak, but an assessment reveals that snow crab stocks remain strong, a few years after nearly collapsing.
"We've seen an increase in the last few years in exploitable biomass," Julia Pantin, a snow crab biologist with the federal Fisheries Department, said Monday at a media briefing in St. John's.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has released the results of the 2022 snow crab stock assessment for the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, which found the exploitable biomass — the estimated combined weight of commercially sized crab — has soared to 200,000 tonnes.
Five years ago, alarm bells were sounding as the biomass shrank to historic lows, resulting in steep quota cuts for commercial harvesters and worries the industry would collapse. Landings hit a 25-year low in 2019.
But now industry leaders sound much more upbeat about the health of the stocks.
"We have a great resource. We have good we got stuff to look forward to in crab," said Greg Pretty, president of the Fish, Food & Allied Workers' union, which represents thousands of harvesters and seafood plant workers.
"Even some of the areas that were not so good are are showing up a little positive. So that's good news," he added.
DFO uses data from scientific surveys and fishing activity to assess the health of the stock. That data, in conjunction with input from industry leaders, Indigenous groups and DFO management, is used to set the annual total allowable catch.
Last year, Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray set the overall quota at 50,470 tonnes, which was a 32 per cent increase over 2021.
The increased quota coincided with a surge in the price paid to harvesters — an average of just under $7 per pound — for a product that became wildly popular, especially in the United States, during the pandemic. The landed value of crab last year was roughly $760 million.
But the demand dried up as the 2022 season progressed, and processing companies and their brokers struggled to sell vast quantities of crab that remained in storage.
Last year's glut, combined with increasing costs for fishing enterprise owners, continues to raise concerns about the prospect for this year's harvest. In a sign of just how worried industry leaders are, the powerful fisheries union and the association that represents processing companies have pledged to work together to salvage this year's harvest
When asked about that co-operation, Pretty said talks are ongoing and remain "confidential at this time."
A decision on this year's overall quota is expected sometime in March. In past years, the harvest typically got underway in April.
Pretty would not reveal the union's position on whether the quota should remain stable or increase.
"We'll have to wait and can consult with our inshore council and our committees before we can make a comment on this," he said.