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After years of steadily increased landings, the days of New England’s largely unregulated Jonah crab fishery are numbered. This May, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages lobster fishing in federal waters off the East Coast, announced it was going to develop a management plan for the burgeoning fishery.
It wasn’t that long ago that Jonah crab were a nuisance – a bait-stealing bycatch that lobstermen would kill with a screwdriver to the carapace and toss them back. But as the price of most crab has reached nose-bleeding price levels, lobstermen not only keep Jonah crab, they also target them in the winter when lobster are few and far between. In the past five years, catches have almost doubled to about 6,000 metric tons and the price fishermen get for their catch has also doubled, from about $.40 to $.80/lb.
That has pushed the price of Jonah crabmeat above $15/lb. for the premium packs. While that’s pricey, it’s only about half the price of Dungeness meat. Look for Jonah prices to stay high, especially a few years down the road as a management plan will probably put a crimp in landings until biologists get a better handle on the size of the resource.
Jonah crab are fished year-round, but landings tend to be slightly heavier in the fall. Flaky white Jonah crabmeat has a sweet taste and tends to be consistent because there are only a few processors for this fishery. Cooked Jonah crab comes in packs of leg, body, or combination meat and the whole claws sold separately. Jonah “snap-‘n-eats” are pre-cooked, pre-cracked crab claws. Check the leg-to-body meat ratio periodically since that impacts the price of Jonah crab.
Florida stone crab may be substituted for more expensive crab options. The relatively large claws can be an affordable substitute for stone crab claws, with cooked Jonah ones selling for about half the price. Jonah crabmeat can be substituted or blended with more expensive crabmeat to make value-added seafood products such as crab cakes and stuffed flounder.
SPECIES VULNERABILITY | ABUNDANCE | HABITAT IMPACTS | BYCATCH | MANAGEMENT EFFECTIVENESS
The population abundance, growth rate and time to maturity are not known for Jonah crab. Segregation by sex and size could make the crab vulnerable to fishing pressure, while the fecundity is on the higher side. The crab is susceptible to environmental variables, so its population varies.
These crabs are usually found in the western North Atlantic, with the primary source in the United States and have medium abundance since there is very little biological data available on them. Although some Jonah crab populations have declined, they are not listed as overfished, according to the Blue Ocean Institute.
Most Jonah crabs are caught with pots and traps intended to catch lobster, which have relatively little impact on the marine habitat. The areas where the crab is caught vary, with some being more sensitive and others more resilient to interactions with pots.
Jonah crab were once an annoying bycatch in the lobster fishery because they stole the bait, but now the crab have become a valuable commercial catch on their own. Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales sometimes get entangled in the lines connecting traps or pots together, making that a continuing environmental concern for the Jonah crab fishery.
Individual states manage the fishery in the U.S. while the Canadian government manages them in that country. Measures in both regions include minimum size limits; sex restrictions so that no females can be caught, seasonal closures, limited entry access, and bycatch provisions. However, since the Jonah crab fishery only emerged relatively recently, little scientific assessment has been done on it and there are currently no quotas.
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