Science and our fishers agree: crab populations in trouble

Wuikinuxv’s Gord Moody and Brian Johnson assessing a crab

As fishing pressure has increased in recent years and our Nations’ catches of Dungeness crab have declined, our people have become concerned about the state of this food resource in our territories. And we’ve done something about it.

Our Watchmen have assembled the most comprehensive scientific dataset available on central coast crab. CCIRA’s Science Coordinator, Alejandro Frid has used this data to publish a scientific paper on the impact of crab fishing closures. And now, our fishers have contributed their knowledge of past crab populations to shed light on how much crab stocks have changed over the decades, and the impact it is having on our people. Collectively, all of this information is being used to make a case with DFO for better management of central coast crab.

Fishers’ knowledge reveals crab decline

Under the guidance of Dr. Natalie Ban at the University of Victoria, Lauren Eckert has been working to compile our fishers’ knowledge of past crab abundance and our Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) needs. Working with all four central coast Nations, Lauren has interviewed 38 people with an average of 48 years of crab fishing experience.

“All participants observed changes in crab abundance during their lifetimes,” writes Lauren in a preliminary report. 83 percent of the fishers described those changes as “severe.” They reported that in recent years, typical catches were just 23 percent of what they used to be.

What makes these numbers even more alarming is that catches have declined dramatically over time despite improvements in fishing technology and increased fishing effort. Compared to the past, “crab fishermen are using more efficient trap technology, soaking traps for longer, and setting them deeper,” writes Lauren.

Over the decades, there has been a shift away from homemade hoop traps towards recreational and commercial traps, and average soak times have increased from three to 13 hours. What this means, explains Lauren, is that the declines in crab abundance the fishers are reporting are likely conservative estimates of what is really happening. The question is why there are less crab being caught in the first place. For most fishers on the coast, the answer is no mystery.

Fishing competition impacts FSC catches

85 percent of fishers Lauren interviewed reported that commercial crabbing wasn’t present in their early days of fishing. Yet, more recently participants noted much greater recreational and commercial crab fishing activity; 76 percent reported severe declines in their catches in places where these activities had taken place.

The implication is that our people are losing access to a food source – one that is rooted in our traditions and has helped sustain our people for generations – because of competition from other fishers.

Gord Moody holding a spawned out female Dungeness Crab.
Gord Moody stands aboard a boat holding a spawned out female crab

Successful catches unlikely

Those interviewed considered a harvesting trip to be successful if they caught about 15 crabs from two traps. But with the increased fishing pressure, successful harvests are becoming exceedingly rare.

By running computer simulations on crab data collected from nine common fishing locations, CCIRA’s Fisheries Coordinator, Madeleine McGreer, determined that only one of those nine locations had a reasonable probability of a successful harvest (70 percent chance of success). The other eight locations had probabilities of successful harvests between 0 and 20 percent.

“…the science and our fishers’ are telling the same story: recreational and commercial fishing pressures are reducing the size and abundance of crab to the point that our Nations cannot meet our FSC needs.”

Notably, the area where success was likely is also the only location tested with a long-standing permanent commercial crab fishing closure. These results are consistent with Alejandro’s previous research, which showed that legal-sized male crabs became larger and more abundant when recreational and commercial fishing closures were in place, but declined in size and number in places where fishing was permitted.

In other words, the science and our fishers’ are telling the same story: recreational and commercial fishing pressures are reducing the size and abundance of crab to the point that our Nations cannot meet our FSC needs. Permanent recreational and commercial fishing closures are needed to help populations recover and ensure our Nations’ access to this traditional food.

Assessing a Dungeness crab on the West Coast.
From left to right: Josh Vickers, Patrick Johnson, Gord Moody and CCIRA’s Field Technician, Tristan Blaine, assess mating marks on a Dungeness crab.

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