The profile of the humble Jonah crab, once considered mere bycatch in the lobster fishery, continues to rise.
On Dec. 19, NOAA Fisheries will implement new regulations that will sharpen the scope and definition of the Jonah crab fishery in federal waters by establishing permitting requirements and setting size and possession limits.
The new federal measures closely replicate Jonah crab fishery management plans already enacted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates Jonah crabs on an interstate level, and many East Coast states — including Massachusetts.
"The federal regulations that are being issued mirror those set in place by ASMFC when they released the Jonah Crab Fishery Management Plan in 2015," said Derek Perry, a crab biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. "More than 99% of Jonah crabs are caught in federal waters, so this is mostly a federal waters fishery."
So, beginning on Dec. 12, only vessels with a federal American lobster trap or non-trap permit may retain Jonah crab in federal waters. The minimum size will be the same as set by Massachusetts for state waters — 4.75 inches across the carapace.
Commercial fishermen fishing on lobster trap permits can catch an unlimited number of Jonah crab in federal waters. Non-trap permit holders can keep up to 1,000 crabs per day as long as the weight of the crabs does not exceed 50% of the vessel's total catch by weight.
Vessels also cannot retain egg-bearing female Jonah crabs. Fishermen can set traps for Jonah crab where their permits already are qualified to fish for lobsters. They must only sell Jonah crabs to federally permitted dealers with a Jonah crab endorsement.
The federal dealers, in turn, only can buy Jonah crabs from American lobster federal permit holders.
Unlike the Massachusetts regulations, the new federal regulations do not ban the harvesting of Jonah crab claws alone. In Massachusetts, only whole Jonah crabs can be landed.
This is a heady time for the Jonah crabs, which have emerged over the past 15 years as a vibrant and popular Atlantic fishery — particularly in Massachusetts.
The Bay State accounts for about 70% of all Jonah crab landings, and Rhode Island contributes another 25%.
Commercial landings, according to the ASMFC, have skyrocketed 650% since the early 2000s. In 2018, fishermen landed 20.2 million pounds of Jonah crabs with an off-the-boat value of more than $18 million.
In Massachusetts, the numbers are even more impressive.
In 2017, fishermen landed 11.68 million pounds of Jonah crab with a value of $11.28 million, elevating Jonah crab to the state's fifth most lucrative fishery ahead of such staples as haddock and soft clams.
Not bad for a species that's never had a stock assessment.
"The status of the Jonah crab fishery in federal or state waters is relatively unknown," the ASMFC stated in its Jonah crab management plan. "There is no range wide stock assessment for Jonah crab. Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire conduct inshore, state water trawl surveys but they provide minimal data because they are primarily focused on fish and encounter Jonah crab species infrequently."
It said NOAA Fisheries conducts a trawl survey in federal waters that collects data on Cancer crab abundance (Jonah crabs are considered Cancer crabs) and distribution, distinguished by species.
"However, this data has not yet been analyzed," the ASMFC said. "Inferred high amounts of undocumented catch, along with inconsistencies in reported landings, make abundance difficult to estimate."
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.