Tina Gray of Deer Isle recalls when picking and selling crabmeat was a prevalent cottage industry along the Maine coast. She and other lobstermen’s wives routinely picked and packaged crab meat at their kitchen sinks, she said, but many got out of the trade years ago when new federal rules for seafood processing went into place.
Gray, who’s going on 33 years picking crab meat for a living, remains one of just a few in her area who keep up with the work. She bills herself as “ The Crab Lady.”
“I remember back when I started, there was like 300 people on this island that used to pick [crabmeat] in their homes,” Gray said, picking crab while standing at a work table in a small processing building outside her house. “Now I think there’s a total of maybe eight [processing] licenses on Deer Island and Stonington.”
Crabs, once a more prominent staple among the various marine fisheries in Maine, have always played second fiddle to lobster in the state’s clawed crustacean seafood industry. But the market divide between Maine lobster and crab has grown more acute over the past dozen years. The volume of Maine’s lobster catch has soared to all-time highs while landings for all crab species have declined to their lowest point since the early 1980s.
That trend stands in sharp contrast to southern New England, where lobster catches have dropped off considerably, but harvests for one type of crab — the large-clawed Jonah crab — have more than quintupled since the 1990s.
The disparity raises questions: Could crab landings rebound in Maine? If so, can they climb back up enough to help offset Maine fishermen’s overwhelming dependence on lobster, which scientists and other officials say could have disastrous consequences if the fishery goes bust?
Lobstermen mainly catch crab as a byproduct, hauling them up in their traps as incidental income. Maine does not issue separate licenses for crab and lobster, with the exception of the recently approved green crab license.
Even though every licensed Maine lobsterman is also permitted to catch crab, many don’t bother to, instead focusing on the much more lucrative lobster.
Maine fishermen earned on average $3.69 per pound last year for their lobster, and have netted more than $4 per pound for much of this year. The average per-pound price they earned for crab — it’s a mere 45 cents.
But Glen Libby of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a sales cooperative founded in 2008 by a small group of midcoast fishermen, has witnessed the economic potential of the Jonah crab. Despite its reduced availability, it has helped counteract even steeper declines in other fisheries, he said. Port Clyde Fresh Catch deliberately avoids lobster and instead focuses on groundfish — landings of which have fallen off sharply in the past 20 to 30 years — and other types of seafood.
“It’s become the biggest thing we do now,” Libby said Thursday of processing Jonah crab into meat and claws. “We don’t have enough workers to process the things.”
Port Clyde Fresh Catch started selling more Jonah crab when the Gulf of Maine shrimp fishery was shut down two years ago.
“We built up our crab market out of necessity,” Libby said. “The margins are tight on crab, [but] there’s a huge demand for it right around Christmas time. There’s plenty of crabs [in the Gulf of Maine].”
The booming popularity of crabs south of Maine’s waters has prompted regulators to institute new rules to help protect the still-plentiful crustacean from the kind of devastation that overfishing has wrought on other species.
Mainers have fished two primary species of crab for well over 100 years. One is Cancer irroratus, known as the “rock” and “sand” crab, or, on dinner menus, as “peekytoe.” The other is Cancer borealis, or the Jonah crab.
Jonah crabs have distinctive black-tipped claws and grow to about as wide as a man’s outstretched hand. They inhabit deeper waters than sand crabs, which are commonly found in bays and right along the shore.
Meat from the Jonah crab is more delicate but less expensive than sand crab, and both are often mixed and packaged together.
According to industry officials, the market for live Maine crab is fairly small. In addition to the lower price they fetch compared to lobster, crab don’t travel as well and their meat spoils quickly if it isn’t frozen. Most of it is cooked, picked and then repackaged for sale, often in 1 pound or half-pound containers.
Demand for Jonah crab has risen domestically and internationally.
Current prices listed online peg Jonah crab at around $20 per pound, depending on whether it is sold still in the claw, while peekytoe prices range from above $20 per pound on the low end to close to $40 or even higher.
Lobster meat prices online at around $50 per pound, while live lobster prices range from less than $10 to more than $30 per lobster.
The price gap between crab and lobster explains why Maine fishermen have long favored the larger crustacean.
Changing catch levels
The state’s annual landings for all crab species, which also include spider and unidentified varieties, sank from an all-time high of 9.5 million pounds in 2002 to a recent low of 1.38 million pounds in 2013, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics. In each of the past three years, from 2012 through 2014, crab landings in Maine have fallen to their lowest levels since 1981, when fewer than 1 million pounds were caught statewide.
Maine’s lobster landings, on the other hand, dwarf those totals. The lobster catch has doubled in the past 12 years and increased sixfold in the past 25 years. Annual lobster catch totals in the state hovered around 20 million pounds from 1945 through the 1980s but have topped 120 million pounds in each of the past three years.
While crab landings continue to slide in Maine, fishermen are eager to catch them in southern New England, where the lobster fishery has been depleted. Officials suspect higher ocean temperatures and perhaps water quality are to blame.
In 1990, Massachusetts fishermen brought 1.2 million pounds of Jonah crab ashore while their Rhode Island counterparts caught 880,000 pounds, according to Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission data. In 2014, the catch in those two states had jumped to 11.9 million and 4.1 million pounds, respectively.
Maryland and New Hampshire also have seen their yearly Jonah crab catches rise significantly.
In Maine, on the other hand, landings for Jonah crab have fallen by 70,000 pounds in the past 24 years, to 333,000 in 2014, according to the commission.
Jonah crabs also have declined as a percentage of Maine’s total crab catch, dropping last year to under 20 percent. In 2006, Jonah crab made up more than half of Maine’s total crab catch.
Carl Wilson, director of the Bureau of Marine Science for the state Department of Marine Resources, said it’s uncertain why Maine crab landings have dropped. The state does not separate landings data among crab species because of the variety of names used to identify them and the resulting confusion about which is which, he added.
A possible natural surge in Jonah crabs may have benefited Maine fishermen in the early 2000s, Wilson said. Crabs also could be losing the competition for habitat against Maine’s booming lobster population, he said, but it’s not clear that lobster’s upswing is a primary factor in lower crab catches.
“There are all these different [environmental] variables that we’re clearly not accounting for,” Wilson said. “There’s all this competition for resources.”
The Jonah crab surge further south is why the interstate fisheries commission in August adopted its first-ever fishery management plan for Jonah crab, an initiative Maine considered on its own in the early 2000s but then discarded. According to state officials, interest in fishing Jonah crabs separately from lobsters was too weak at the time to justify the management challenges that would result, such as creating an additional set of catch restrictions and licensing requirements and likely increasing the amount of fishing gear in the water.
The more recent effort by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to implement conservation measures comes as more retailers are trying to ensure that their seafood is harvested sustainably. One of them, Food Lion and Hannaford supermarkets owner Delhaize America, contacted Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which put together a group of industry players, scientists and regulators to come up with recommended measures.
Steve Train, a Long Island lobsterman who is part of that group and a Maine representative to the commission, said Wednesday that the new rules for catching Jonah crab fishery include a minimum width of 4¾ inches and a ban on keeping females, which tend to be smaller than males.
The new rules are expected to go into effect June 1, 2016.
The impact on Maine fishermen, he said, is expected to be minimal, mainly because the price difference between lobster and crab is so great. Lobstermen may catch Jonah crab as a byproduct, but few if any fishermen target crabs over lobster, he said.
“We don’t want to waste [the use of] traps on a less profitable species,” Train said, adding that he does not fish for crab. “There’s no reason to do that when we have a more lucrative fishery.”
With the recent increases in Jonah crab landings out of state, it makes sense to implement conservation measures to help prevent Jonah crab from overharvesting by fishermen looking for new species to catch, as happened in the 1980s and ’90s with groundfish and sea urchins, Train said.
“We have too much history of not regulating a fishery until it collapses,” he said.
‘Not an easy job’
Brooksville fisherman Chris Bates spends his winter months focusing on peekytoe crab, which is caught in low enough volumes that neither Maine nor the interstate fisheries commission has considered implementing conservation measures for that species. Unlike lobsters, peekytoe crab do not migrate out to sea in the winter, and Bates prefers to fish closer to land.
Bates said he earns the vast majority of his income fishing for lobster, but he does well enough with peekytoe in the winter and spring to make it worthwhile. He can keep his daily crab fishing expenses low, around $150 to $200, and still catch between $500 and $600 worth of crab.
A lobsterman with a good haul, on the other hand, can catch several thousand dollars worth of lobster in one day.
As long as lobster are plentiful and fetch a much higher price, Bates doesn’t think crab landings will crawl back up significantly in Maine.
“There are very few of us [fishing for crab] in the winter,” he said. “I just like being on the water. It’s better than working for a living.”
Crab picker Gray is similarly skeptical that crab landings will ever approach their early-2000s levels.
Younger people in the industry could be in for a “shocker,” she added, if and when the supply and price of lobster sinks back down to the levels seen decades ago, when lobstermen routinely caught fewer than 50 million pounds each year and earned less than $3 per pound. Because of lobster’s starring role in the market, younger fishermen have a more limited set of skills than their forbears, she said.
Plus, their wives don’t want to earn a living the way their grandmothers did, Gray said.
“A lot of the younger generation have never experienced the lows [in the seafood industry],” she said. “They don’t want to do this. It’s not an easy job.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Maine bans the harvesting of female crabs.