Snow crab fishery expects early season will protect right whales, improve catch

·3 min read
New Brunswick's snow crab industry expects an early start to the season thanks to help from icebreakers. (The Canadian Press - image credit)
New Brunswick's snow crab industry expects an early start to the season thanks to help from icebreakers. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

New Brunswick's lucrative snow crab industry is just weeks away from a head start to the season, which could result in higher revenue and less risk for endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Icebreakers from the Canadian Coast Guard and contracted boats began clearing the waters near Shippagan and Caraquet on the Acadian Peninsula over the weekend.

Gilles Thériault, president of the New Brunswick Crab Processors Association, said the early opening will help get fishermen setting traps before the whales begin migrating into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in May.

"This is a really short season and it really depends on every crab that we can catch in terms of making a significant contribution to the economy of northern New Brunswick," he said in an interview.

The season is expected to start at the beginning of April, up to four weeks earlier than normal. While the season extends into late June, the presence of whales means most of the fishing grounds are forced to close.

Below target last season

The early start is expected to boost profits compared to last season.

Thériault said the industry left about 11 per cent of its quota in the water in 2020, or between $40 million and $50 million worth of product.

"This fishery is really important and it's certainly a loss to the community when you basically leave that much crab in the water," he said.

Gilles Thériault is president of the New Brunswick Crab Processors Association.
Gilles Thériault is president of the New Brunswick Crab Processors Association.(CBC)

Despite early concerns about the pandemic hurting sales, the price remained stable. The retail market absorbed about 85 per cent of product, making up for the loss of sales to casinos and restaurants primarily in the U.S.

Thériault said the price this year is expected to be at its highest level, up from between $4-$4.50 at the end of last season.

In recent years, the industry association has been advocating for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to provide icebreaking. But those operations have been primarily to access areas with flooding, not specifically to help fishermen.

Snow crab boats are stored for the winter near Shippagan's wharf.
Snow crab boats are stored for the winter near Shippagan's wharf.(Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Thériault, who lives in Tracadie, said fishermen are thankful for the icebreakers.

"The quicker we catch our quota, the less danger there is of whales being trapped into ropes," he said.

"We hope that the vast majority of the quota will be caught before the whales arrive."

Avoiding right whales

North Atlantic right whales normally migrate to waters in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Bay of Fundy toward the end of May, after spending the winter off the shores of Florida and Georgia.

The population is dangerously low, with entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes the biggest causes of right whale deaths. Researchers estimate there to be only a little more than 350 left in the world.

Thériault said the presence of whales makes fishing "nerve-racking" and expensive as different areas close in response to sightings.

The biggest cause of death for North Atlantic right whales is fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.
The biggest cause of death for North Atlantic right whales is fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes.(Submitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)

"You keep shifting your traps toward the end of the season," he said. "So it's a very stressful and a very tense situation and sometimes you have to get out of the best fishing grounds because that's where the whales happen to be."

A warmer than average winter has resulted in less ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But there remains ice along the coast, inside wharves and in the entrance of the Shippagan Gully.

Icebreaking operations are expected to continue over the next two weeks before the fishing season kicks off at the start of next month.