One way for fishing communities to survive and even thrive, as species abundance and markets shift, is through diversification. Learn more about how Jonah Crab is on the rise as an emerging way for fishermen to diversify their efforts.
Increasing pressures on the Northeast U.S. fishing industry continue to exist with factors including climate change impacts, forcing once abundant species like the American lobster to move to colder waters, and recent punitive tariffs creating barriers to former lucrative markets. One way for fishing communities to survive and even thrive, as species abundance and markets shift, is through diversification.
For some, diversification means investing in and growing new export markets, and for others the strategy may be catching a variety of species and nimbly moving from one fishery to the next. Either way, in today’s world, diversification is the key to helping Northeast U.S. seafood fishing communities build a more resilient and sustainable industry.
“One way to counter what’s happening in the world today is to diversify export markets for all Northeast U.S. seafood products,” said Colleen Coyne, Seafood Program Manager, Food Export–Northeast. “Our programs, services and promotional activities around the world can help suppliers do that.”
Take for example Jonah crab. Once considered a bycatch of the lobster industry, Jonah crab is now emerging as a growth opportunity for Northeast U.S. American lobster harvesters. Landed predominantly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, landings of Jonah crab have increased by 650% over the last 15 years. In 2018, landings reached 20.2 million pounds. The rapid increase in landings can be attributed to many Southern New England lobster harvesters looking for ways to maintain their way of life and business.
“To build a more resilient fishing industry, we have to look at the long-term capacity of our fisherman and the people coming up behind them when they retire or leave. When softness for one fishery exists and a developing one can fill the gap that’s a diversification strategy we can maximize,” said Ken Ayars, Chief of Agriculture for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Why does it work? The Jonah crab season is in the middle of winter from January to March, when the lobster catch begins to slow down. The crabs are attracted to the same bait and end up in the harvesters’ lobster traps so the same gear can be used to land both. And, for lobsterman harvesting Jonah crab makes their trips out on the water more efficient and the winter catch season more productive.
“A lot of our fishing community, especially lobster harvesters are excited about the Jonah crab fishery and the market that is currently developing for it,” noted Ayars. “Some of our fisherman are harvesting both lobsters and Jonah crab because of its growth potential. What they once thought was merely a bycatch that they couldn’t do anything with, is now developing value. They see it as a real way for fisherman to maintain their way of life and business.”
With volumes growing and processing capacity developing along with the fishery, Food Export–Northeast is just beginning to introduce Jonah crab overseas. “Now that we have a developing directed fishery, it’s time to develop markets and get this new product on the radar of international buyers,” said Food Export–Northeast’s Coyne. The trade association took its first step in September with a promotional reception at the U.S. Embassy in Spain. At that event Jonah crab made its debut and was served up to international taste makers and buyers. “Jonah Crab was well received,” said Coyne. “People were impressed with the taste and how nice and delicate and sweet the meat was – even sweeter than Dungeness crabs.”
“Jonah Crab wouldn’t be developing as rapidly as it is and with the interest that it has, if the taste wasn’t commensurate with marketing potential – that’s one of the driving factors to making a fishery work,” concluded Ayars.
About Food Export USA—Northeast
With its extensive programs and educational offerings, Food Export USA–Northeast (Food Export–Northeast) is recognized as the preeminent expert and cost-effective resource for Northeast seafood and agricultural suppliers looking to sell their products overseas. Founded in 1973, Food Export–Northeast is a non-profit organization that works collaboratively with its 10 member states’ agricultural promotion agencies from Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont, to facilitate trade between suppliers and worldwide importers and to promote the export of food, agricultural and seafood products from those states. Since its founding, the organization has helped Northeast seafood suppliers gain access to a broad range of export markets, supported overseas in-market educational and promotional programs and offers emerging suppliers access to funds to help grow their export business. The organization is funded through the Market Access Program (MAP), administered by the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
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