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Jonah crabs: Managing an emerging fishery

Rock crab (cancer irroratus) left, and Jonah crab (cancer borealis), right.  The two species can be distinguished in a few ways.  First, rock crab have purplish-brown spots on the carapace, while Jonah crabs have yellow spots.  Second, rock crabs have smooth edges to the teeth on the edge of the carapace.  Jonah crabs can be slightly larger than rock crabs and typically have black-tipped claws.  (MA DMF graphic)

Rock crab (cancer irroratus) left, and Jonah crab (cancer borealis), right. The two species can be distinguished in a few ways. First, rock crab have purplish-brown spots on the carapace, while Jonah crabs have yellow spots. Second, rock crabs have smooth edges to the teeth on the edge of the carapace. Jonah crabs can be slightly larger than rock crabs and typically have black-tipped claws. (MA DMF graphic)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – As fish begin to move and modify their behavior in response to changes in the ocean, fishermen are moving and adapting, too.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ACMFC) initiated the Jonah crab Fishery Management Plan (FMP) which takes effect June 1.

“It’s an exciting time for this species,” said Megan Ware, FMP coordinator for American lobster and now Jonah crab. “It’s the first coastwide regulations for Jonah crab.”

The fishery evolved from a declining Southern New England lobster fishery.  As lobster fishermen looked for new, economically-viable species, they turned to harvesting the plentiful crab with sizeable claws that were already showing up in their traps.

“Prices of dungeness crabs have skyrocketed,” Ware said. “Fishermen responded by substituting crab (Jonah) that’s more economical and high in demand.”

This created a $13 million fishery by 2014, up from $1.5 million in 2000.  That translates into 17 million crabs now harvested mainly from lobster traps.

But there are challenges to managing a new fishery, such as having little or no data on the crab, or having different names used for it in different areas.

“In Maine, they call it a rock crab, so it can be confusing on which species is being managed,” said Ware.  Part of her job has been to make sure everyone is reporting landings for the same crab.

Little is known about the crab’s life history.  Although the NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center collects Jonah crab data during its spring and fall trawls, the fishery is so new it hasn’t been analyzed…

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