ELLSWORTH – Once thought of as little more than a trash species hardly worth trapping, the Jonah crab is about to get its own fishery management plan (FMP) from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Meeting in Alexandria, Va., last week, the commission’s American Lobster Management Board adopted a number of measures aimed at protecting the Jonah crab resource. Similar to the high-value Dungeness crab found in the Pacific, Jonah crabs are now subject to a small but growing directed trap fishery. So far, they are plentiful along the Atlantic coast and regulators are taking steps to insure that continues.
Following the board’s action, the commission approved a final version of an Interstate FMP for Jonah crab. The plan aims to cap fishing efforts and protect spawning stock biomass in the absence of a range-wide stock assessment. The planning process was begun in response to concern about increasing targeted fishing pressure.
Jonah crab has long been considered as bycatch in the lobster fishery. Since the early part of this century, growing market demand has led to a six-fold increase in reported landings.
The vast majority of Jonah crabs are harvested by lobstermen using lobster traps. With the increase in demand for crab, a mixed fishery has developed that targets lobster or crab, or both, at different times of the year based on modifications to the gear and small shifts in the areas in which traps are fished.
The plan includes a variety of conservation measures. Among them:
—participation in the Jonah crab trap fishery would be limited to boats and harvesters that already hold a lobster fishing permit or who can prove participation in the fishery before a “control date: yet to be determined;”
—bycatch in non-trap fisheries would be limited to 200 crabs per day and 500 crabs for any trip
—a minimum carapace size of 4.75 inches with no enforcement tolerance for undersized crabs.
As in the Maine lobster fishery, possession of egg-bearing female crabs would be prohibited. Also banned would be the landing or possession of crab parts. Only whole crabs could be retained and sold.
The fishery management plan would also establish a possession limit of 50 crabs for recreational fishermen.
According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, landings of Jonah crabs have more than quadrupled over the past 20 years or so. In New England, the highest volume of landings comes from Massachusetts, though a number of Maine fishermen engage in a directed trap fishery.