British Columbia

'A bloodbath, basically': Crab poaching a problem in B.C.'s Lower Mainland: biologist

It's all hands on deck for DFO officers working to protect sensitive and record-low salmon stocks from illegal activity. Does that leave other fisheries, such as the local crab population, at risk?

Enforcement and patrol stretched thin as fisheries officers deal with salmon shortages

Dungeness crab, shown here, account for nearly 100 per cent of commercial harvest in B.C. (Kevin Clark/AP)

Earlier this month, Andrew Newman was dismayed to witness two people rip the claws off undersized crabs in White Rock, B.C. and toss them back into the ocean.

Newman, the owner of White Rock Sea Tours and Whale Watching, described the scene as an act of "greed and cruelty" and called authorities.

He later posted a video of the RCMP bust that resulted in fines for two people accused of removing the meaty claws from undersized and female crabs.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says Hsin Chan and Chun Li were charged and ticketed under the federal Fisheries Act for fishing without a licence and harvesting undersized Dungeness crab on Sept. 7. 

Video posted to Facebook shows police speaking with accused at a White Rock, B.C. pier 0:29

Fisheries officials did not have statistics on poaching in B.C., but a biologist at Vancouver Island University said crab poaching is a problem in the Lower Mainland.

Stefanie Duff, chair of the fisheries and aquaculture program at the University of Vancouver Island, said she has noticed a number crabs without their claws, especially in intertidal areas where recreational fishermen often pitch their traps.

Poachers rip the claws off crabs because they contain the most succulent — and therefore most valuable — part of the crab. Poachers then toss the rest of the body back in the water.

"It's a bloodbath, basically," Duff  said, adding that removing a crab's claws is akin to cutting off a human's hands; it reduces the animal's ability to eat, defend itself, move effectively and almost ensures a slow death.

A slow death

It's illegal in B.C. to retain any part of a crab without the body. It is also illegal to keep female crabs which can produce between 20,000 and 80,000 offspring in a lifetime, said Duff.

Because crabs don't have blood vessels the way mammals do, they are likely to bleed to death if an appendage is torn off carelessly, Duff said.

Dungeness crab must be at least 165 millimetres in width while red rock crab must measure at least 115 millimetres in width to be a legal catch. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

It's difficult to determine how much crab is removed by recreational fishers in the province. However, a 2005 survey estimated the legal recreational harvesting accounted for about 368 tonnes, or seven per cent of the total harvest.

Crab poaching is a concern because stocks in the Lower Mainland have been declining since 2010, according to Jason Dunham, a biologist who has helped conduct the surveys for a number of years.

The cause of the decline is unknown, but the ministry said it could be combination of environmental conditions, warming waters, poaching and other issues.

Because of the decline, some of the province's 221 commercial crab licensees have moved their fleets to other regions, worried about harvesting opportunities around Metro Vancouver, according to Dunham.

B.C.'s commercial crab fishery accounted for 31 per cent of the value of the province's wild shellfish products in 2014 and averaged a value of $46 million in harvest each year from 2013 to 2015.

It's also an important food, social and ceremonial fishery for First Nations.

Salmon stocks take priority

Newman said he used to see fisheries officers at the pier in White Rock, but they haven't been around lately.

Ministry staff said that's likely because of record-low salmon returns, which have kept the few officers in the region very busy.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada deploys up to four conservation and protection officers each day but he said that's not enough to keep up with enforcement, habitat restoration work and investigations, said Fisheries and Oceans Canada detachment supervisor, Art Demsky,.

"I would say our resources are definitely stretched and we definitely do need more officers," said Demsky who added that the Lower Mainland employs 27 officers.

About the Author

Ash Kelly

Digital Producer

Ash Kelly is an associate producer for CBC Radio and online. Her CBC outdoor column, 'The Great Wide Open' focuses on nuanced stories about life outdoors. It airs province-wide every two weeks. You can find Ash and more of her stories on Twitter @AshDKelly.