PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — New England lobstermen are catching and selling more of a long-overlooked crab species in their traps, leading regulators to try to craft a management plan for the fishery before it becomes overexploited.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is working on regulations for Jonah crabs, a species common along the Eastern Seaboard that is rapidly growing in market share as an economic alternative to more expensive Dungeness and stone crabs. The crabs are popular with diners and cooks alike for their meaty claws and as a low-cost source of processed crab meat.
Jonah crab catch increased sixfold from 2000 to 2013, with fishermen catching nearly 7,000 metric tons two years ago, federal data show. The crabs also increased more than 700 percent in value in that time, with the fishery worth nearly $13 million in 2013.
Lobstermen often trap Jonah crabs as bycatch. An interstate plan could deal with issues such as establishing a minimum legal catch size, creating a permitting system for the fishery and crafting protections for egg-bearing female crabs, said Megan Ware, fishery management plan coordinator for the commission.
William Adler, a Marshfield, Massachusetts-based lobsterman and a member of the commission's American Lobster Board who sometimes catches Jonah crabs, said seafood dealers are concerned that there is no plan in place for the management of the growing fishery. Regulations could allay those fears, he said.
"Some of the buyers of these crabs were saying unless you have some type of way to have a sustainable fishery, we're not going to buy any more crabs," Adler said.
Fishermen said the crabs' growing popularity as food has turned them into a key revenue stream for lobstermen — especially in southern New England, where lobster catches have tailed off in recent years. Jonah crabs are the latest New England fishery to rise from obscurity in recent years, and like some others, it has grown out of necessity.
Atlantic pollock more than doubled in value from 2003 to 2013, to about $11.4 million, as the fish emerged as a more sustainable alternative to the imperiled New England cod. Maine baby eels fetched as little as 4 cents per pound in the early 2000s but skyrocketed to more than $40 per pound in 2012 when foreign stocks dried up. And as northern New England water temperatures have accelerated over the past 10 years, Maine and New Hampshire have expressed interest in developing black sea bass fisheries because more of the fish are appearing off their coasts.
Jonah crabs are known for sweet, flaky meat that some cooks say compares to the popular — and often expensive — Pacific Dungeness crab.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island fishermen are leading the surge in the catch — those states accounted for nearly 95 percent of Jonah crabs landed in 2013.
Fishermen in Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut landed more than 50,000 pounds of Jonah crabs in each state that year. The crabs, which sold for about 84 cents per pound at the dock in 2013, are worth much less than lobster, which fetched $3.08 per pound that year.
Steve Train, a lobsterman on Casco Bay, Maine, who also sits on the lobster board, said the regulation plan is a chance to manage the Jonah crab fishery before it runs into trouble.
"Too often we don't manage something properly until it's too late," Train said. "We don't have to have crisis management when we can manage it from the beginning."
A draft of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's management plan for Jonah crabs is up for public comment until July 24, Ware said. The commission could vote on the plan in August, she said.