Giant waves and slimy seas: 2018 crab harvest a mixed bag for Conception Bay fishermen

The 2018 crab harvest is presenting some big challenges for fishermen in Conception Bay, but a record price is helping save would could otherwise be a disastrous year.

Record prices helping many avoid a disastrous season

A single snow crab like this one can earn a fisherman eight loonies this year, a record price. But poor fishing conditions this spring have prevented many crews from catching their quotas. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The 2018 snow crab harvest is presenting some big challenges for fishermen in Conception Bay, but a record price is helping save what could otherwise be a disastrous year for some.

While the bigger offshore boats, known as full-timers, are reporting healthy landings, the so-called inshore fleet, with vessels less than 35 feet, have been hard hit.

Pots covered in mud

Many have been pinned to the wharf in harbours like Port de Grave, missing valuable fishing time as persistent gales churn up giant waves.

Lindsay Petten is the owner/operator of the Nautical Legend, a 65-foot multi-species fishing vessel based on Port de Grave, Conception Bay. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"It's like February in June," said Lindsay Petten, owner/operator of the the steel-hulled Nautical Legend.

This year we're seeing just regular systems coming through with 45, 55 knots and it's happening on a weekly basis.- Fisherman Lindsay Petten

"Occasionally, if a hurricane came through you'd see winds greater than 35 knots. This year we're seeing just regular systems coming through with 45, 55 knots and it's happening on a weekly basis."

Fishermen say the ocean is also clouded with "slub," which they say is draping their pots.

"When those pots come up out of the water, they're just like a brin bag. Just totally covered with mud," explained Port de Grave fisherman Dwight Petten, whose enterprise includes four fishing vessels.
Some of the 50,000 pounds of snow crab landed by the Nautical Legend in Ship Cove, Port de Grave on Tuesday. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

It's meant lower landings for the inshore fleet, and worries in some quarters that if the situation does not improve, the entire quota may not be harvested.

"Right now, landings are being affected big time," said Dwight Petten.
Port de Grave fisherman Dwight Petten. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"A lot of boats are coming in with five, six, seven and eight thousand in closer areas. Last year, you'd be coming in with eight and 10 thousand. So like she's really down."

Quota cuts fraying nerves

The harsh weather conditions and slimy water is in addition to worrisome quota cuts that have hit the crab sector in recent years, with some in Port de Grave saying the crab resource in Conception Bay is on the decline.

That's not only fraying nerves among fishermen, but also among those who work at the Barry Group processing plant in Port de Grave.

Workers say lower landings mean fewer shifts, and that could mean difficulty qualifying for employment insurance benefits in an industry that is highly seasonal.
Fresh snow crab in the fish hold of the Nautical Legend. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

But there was no sign of a slowdown at the plant on Tuesday, with the Legend coming ashore with 50,000 pounds of crab and immediately being sent through the processing line.

For offshore fishermen like Lindsay Petten, it's been a good year. He says "traditional" crab grounds along the Grand Banks are not showing any signs of decline. In fact, he said catch rates are higher than he's ever seen.

"We're still getting cuts, even though our catch rates are above what we were getting back in the 90s," Lindsay Petten said.

The mood is not quite so upbeat closer to shore, but Dwight Petten believes things might turn around when the ocean — and the winds — finally settle.

"We're just hoping that it is the dirty water and it's not the resource down," he said.
Larger multi-species offshore fishing vessels like these in Port de Grave are reporting decent snow crab landings this year, despite steep quota cuts in recent years. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Meanwhile, the crab that is being landed is fetching a hefty return as a shortage of supply from places such as Alaska drives prices into the stratosphere.

A single crab can earn a fisherman up to $8 this year. That's about twice what they were being paid three or four years ago.

Good thing, too, because the total allowable catch has shrunk by 17 per cent this year, with similarly steep cuts in 2017.

"If the price wasn't there, everyone would be in pretty rough shape," said Lindsay Petten.

About the Author

Terry Roberts

CBC News

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.