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As crab stocks collapse, tensions rise on the waterfront

In the deep, narrow inlets on British Columbia's central coast, there are relatively few good places that have the shallow, sandy bottoms and rich eelgrass beds Dungeness crabs need to thrive.

That is leading to tensions on the waterfront, where fishermen are competing in limited space for a vulnerable resource.

In some places - such as the rich estuary off Bella Coola, about 900 kilometres north of Vancouver - locals fear they are facing a crab famine because of overfishing by commercial boats.

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"It was always good here," says Wally Webber, marine use co-ordinator for the Nuxalk Nation, which settled in the area long before Alexander Mackenzie arrived, in July of 1793, on his epic overland crossing of North America.

"You could go anywhere, set a trap here and get what you needed. But it has been diminishing in the last three or four years," he said. "Now, all of a sudden, it's really noticeable."

Mr. Webber stood on the dock at Bella Coola recently and did an informal survey of native and non-native sport fishermen. He found that, on average, for every seven traps set, one crab was caught that was big enough to keep.

"One sporty set traps all around King Island. He got only one keeper," a dejected Mr. Webber said.

King Island, it should be noted, is not a little lump of rock. It is the seventh largest island on the B.C. coast, covering 808 square kilometres.

An expedition around King Island with crab traps should see you return with a bounty; enough to feed a village.

The fisherman got one.

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Mr. Webber says there is no mystery to the collapse of crab stocks.

"We never used to see commercial crab boats coming in here. But in the last few years they have started to arrive. I guess the fishing isn't so good off the West Coast of Vancouver Island any more, and some of the boats have moved to our area.

"This is the second or third time they've come in. Each time we notice there are no crabs after.

"They come and set right in front of our sport and food fish traps. They set traps right over our traps … There is nothing left for us."

Nuxalk Chief Spencer Siwallace wrote to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans last year asking that the crab-fishing waters in Area 8 be closed to commercial harvest.

That led to a meeting with the DFO, and a request from the government that the Nuxalk limit their request to a few specific spots, since Area 8 includes a network of inlets and channels that stretches to the open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound.

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Last month Chief Siwallace wrote to DFO again, accusing the government of "severe mismanagement of the crab fishery in our ancestral territory," for allowing a commercial harvest without conducting a study of how many crabs there are.

Chief Siwallace said the Nuxalk don't want a "postage stamp" closing here or there, they want the whole area shut down. And they want that to happen now.

Russell Mylchreest, shellfish co-ordinator for DFO, said officials are aware of the Nuxalk Nation's concerns, and are seeking a solution, not just to conflict there, but coastwide, as native, sport and commercial fishermen clash over a limited resource.

A consultation process is under way and new regulations could be ready for next year.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mylchreest said DFO believes the Dungeness crab population in Area 8 is healthy overall, and the fishery is sustainable.

"Still, there are locations in the area where improvement could be made," he said.

Mr. Mylchreest noted only one of B.C.'s 222 commercial boats has fished near Bella Coola this year, and 18 are licensed for the area, which doesn't sound like many. But in a narrow inlet, where the good crab grounds are few, a single boat can have a huge impact.

Commercial crab boats carry from 200 to 1,200 traps - and some crabbers have been seen lowering traps without floats to mark them, which suggests they may be setting more than allowed.

How many crabs were caught in Area 8 this year? DFO doesn't know.

How many crabs were left for the Nuxalk and sport fishermen?

Mr. Webber and his neighbours get the answer to that every time they pull up a pot - and find it empty.

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