Crab fishermen struggle as season begins under strict new regulations

Snow crab fishing began last week in northern New Brunswick, the first season under strict new regulations by Ottawa to protect the endangered north Atlantic right whale.

Measures to protect endangered whales after deadly year include making some fishing grounds off limits

Captain Alain Noel and his crew were disappointed after coming back from their first crab fishing trip of the season. (CBC)

Snow crab fishing began last week in northern New Brunswick, the first season under strict new regulations by Ottawa to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Eighteen whales died in Canadian and American waters last year, and at least three of those deaths were a result of entanglement in fishing gear.

The most drastic of the new measures has been the closing of a zone off the province's northeastern coast to fishing, a location where 90 per cent of the whales had migrated to last summer.

That area is also an area rich in snow crab.

As many boats came back from their first trip out to sea, some fishermen couldn't help but feel anxious about what the season would bring.

At the dock in Shippagan, many people were nervous about the season, as they came back from what they said was a disappointing first trip. (CBC)

"We're a little disappointed with the catch," said Alain Noel, captain of the Atlantic Gale, a crab fishing boat in Shippagan.

"The quantities were mediocre."

To catch enough crab, Noel said, his crew had to be out at sea for five days.

That's because they had to go twice as far to find new fishing grounds — almost all the way to the Magdalen Islands.

DFO has closed a large zone off the coast of northern New Brunswick to both crab and lobster fishing for the entire season. (CBC)

"The gulf is big, but it's not just anywhere you can lay a trap. There's certain areas where crabs hang out."

The "no-fishing zone" accounted for 20 per cent of last year's crab quota, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

"That's taking away a lot of our territory," said Noel.

Plants worried too

Inside processing plants, many people are also feeling nervous.

"The workers are really concerned about the number of hours they'll be able to work out of this crab processing season," said Marc Guignard, who manages Belle Ile Fisheries Ltd., a plant that processes snow crab in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Raphael.

Marc Guignard, who manages Belle Ile Fisheries Ltd., a plant that processes snow crab in Sainte-Marie-Saint-Raphael, said landings have been down so far and he's worried about this year's season. (CBC)

So far, Guignard said the landings have been less than they were last year. He's also worried fishermen will try to rush things before the whales are expected to migrate to the gulf later this spring.

"They're afraid of a closure of the crab fishery before they would have caught the totality of their quota," said Guignard. "This is putting a lot of pressure on the plants."

In a year that's made headlines for workers protesting the so-called EI "black hole" — and with things only expected to get worse next year with requirements for minimum number of hours worked going up, Guignard said he's having to look into diversifying his work for the first time.

While Noel said he had to stay out longer to catch enough crab, others said they went for the same amount of time but caught about half the quantity they expected. (CBC)

"We're trying to find ways to be able to hire them to continue employment and do other stuff usually we haven't done in the past," he said. "We will have to take care of those employees if we want them to return next year."

Uncertainty ahead

For now, the latest zone closure has caused the biggest headache for New Brunswick's fishing industry.

But once whales begin migrating into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, DFO could also implement what it calls "dynamic closures" — the closing of additional areas to fishing where whales will be spotted for a duration of at least 15 days at a time.

"Oh I don't even want to think about that," said Noel. "I don't even know where we would go."

There's also the looming threat that Ottawa could cut the season short, as it did last year after whales began dying in such alarming numbers.

Many fishermen worry whether they'll be able to catch their quota at all this year.

"Everyone's worried about that … we're crossing our fingers that everything goes well," said Noel.