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B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick talk about Oscar, a Dungeness crab at Fisherman's Wharf in Victoria and the governments Buy Local program. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick talk about Oscar, a Dungeness crab at Fisherman's Wharf in Victoria and the governments Buy Local program. (CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Closing of B.C. Dungeness crab fishery sparks anger Add to ...

The tasty, hence lucrative, Dungeness crab is off-limits in B.C.’s northern coastal waters this month, and the region’s crab fishermen are exceedingly, well, crabby about it.

“Yeah, you could say that,” said Dan Edwards, executive director of the Area A Crab Association, as he voiced the fishermen’s mounting anger over a decision by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to keep the crab fishery closed until Aug. 1.

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“We’ve never seen it open so late. There are millions of dollars being lost here,” Mr. Edwards said Tuesday. “The kind of damage being done to these guys is irreparable. It’s their livelihood.”

Mel Kotyk, area director for the DFO, said the region was declared off-limits for crab harvesting after sampling provided insufficient evidence that it was safe to allow the fishermen to lay their traps without damaging the fishery.

The decision traditionally hinges on whether male crabs with hard shells show up in the samples gathered by independent scientists. If they do, it’s open season. Otherwise, fishing is a no-no.

The sample that determined the current closing contained mostly soft-shelled females, with few males at all.

This was not enough to allow fishing, said Mr. Kotyk. “If the evidence is not sufficient, our default position is closure.”

But crab fishermen are furious at a ruling that they charge is based on almost no data and no science.

Late last month, they picketed the DFO offices in Prince Rupert, briefly blockading the entrance, and have now withdrawn their involvement in future ocean surveys of the Dungeness crab population.

“We’ve worked for years without any problem. If the science is there, we’ll shut down,” said Mr. Edwards. “But to manipulate data that is not sound is just unacceptable to our guys.”

Veteran crab fisherman Phil Edwards, the brother of Dan Edwards, said the decision to keep the fishery closed “came out of nowhere, with no scientific backup. I think they just don’t want to admit they made a mistake.”

Mr. Kotyk said he is mystified by the fishermen’s anger, claiming it is not unusual for the fishery to be closed during much of July, an assertion hotly disputed by Dan Edwards. “It’s sometimes closed for part of July, but never the whole month,” he said.

Indeed, a DFO report on the crab fishery says: “Area A generally [opens] in June or July, following closures to protect soft shell crab. … Although it varies year-to-year, about half of the catch in the fishery occurs in July and August.”

Although catches have been gradually declining in recent years, the total value of the province’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery was still almost $27-million in 2011.

According to the Crab Association, landed sales in Area A alone are worth an estimated $15-million, providing employment for about 300 people.

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