Fifteen years ago, the Jonah crab was barely an afterthought to fishermen and fishery managers alike.
When the crabs were considered at all, it was chiefly as unregulated bycatch to the American lobster industry. Untargeted and largely unloved by fishermen and unknown by consumers, the crabs became the living embodiment of a niche fishery.
But then something happened: landings of Jonah crabs exploded, from nearly 3 million pounds in 1994 to more than 17 million pounds in 2017 — with more than 70 percent of the haul coming out of Massachusetts waters. They are used as food, sometimes to substitute for the popular and more expensive Dungeness crab.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the lobster industry in state waters, was the first to weigh in as fishing effort increased dramatically, fueled in part by the demise of the lobster industry in southern New England.
The ASMFC established the first Jonah crab management plan in 2015. Now, at the request of the commission, NOAA Fisheries is getting into the game with proposed regulations for managing Jonah crabs in federal waters.
The federal fishery manager is set to publish a proposed rule Friday, March 23, in the Federal Register, seeking comment on measures that would create a management strategy for Jonah crabs in federal waters. The proposed measures closely mirror those already established by the ASMFC, particularly in the manner in which they are linked to the American lobster industry.
According to NOAA Fisheries, approximately 95 percent of Jonah crab landings are caught in lobster traps.
Under the proposed regulations, legal commercial landings of Jonah crabs in federal waters would require "an existing permit within the limited-access American lobster permit system" and would not require a specific permit for Jonah crabs.
"This action is not expected to prevent historical Jonah crab harvesters from Jonah crab fishing in the future," NOAA Fisheries wrote in the published rule. "Our analysis of federal and state harvest data failed to identify a Jonah crab trap harvester that did not hold an American lobster permit."
For commercial fishermen, the proposed rule would:
* Allow commercial lobster trap permit holders to harvest an unlimited amount of Jonah crabs. Commercial non-trap lobster permit holders would be permitted to land up to 1,000 Jonah crabs per trip, as long as the weight of the crabs represented no more than 50 percent of the total catch weight onboard the vessel.
* The latter was included to further ensure "that historic incidental harvest does not evolve into targeted harvest."
For recreational harvesters, the proposed rule would:
* Set the catch limit at 50 crabs per person, per day. There is no allowance for a recreational claw harvest and charter/party permitted vessels would have to comply with the recreational requirements.
For both commercial and recreational sectors, the proposed rule:
* Establishes a minimum size of 4.75 inches (width of carapace) for keepers; and
* Prohibits the retention of egg-bearing females and prohibits the removal of eggs from an egg-bearing female.
The proposed rule would establish a requirement for dealer permitting and mandatory dealer reporting "for any dealer wishing to purchase Jonah crabs from federally permitted vessels, consistent with all other regionally managed species."
It also would provide expanded exemptions from the regulations "to conduct research on migration, growth rates and maturity in federal waters."
The comment period for the proposed rule will remain open until April 21.
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.