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Jonah Crab Moves Mainstream In Gulf Of Maine After Decades As Lobster Bycatch

Josh Carloni

Regulators are taking comments on plans to expand a lucrative new crab fishery that’s stirring interest in the Gulf of Maine.

Jonah crabs are a native species that, until recently, was mainly caught as bycatch – by accident – in lobster pots.

Now, as warming waters push the lobster fishery north, more fishermen – especially in southern New England – are targeting Jonah crabs on purpose to supplement their income.

New Hampshire Fish and Game biologist Josh Carloni says in Northern New England and the Gulf of Maine, lobster is still king – but that could change.

"There is some evidence that we're not seeing as many baby lobsters, so I think it's proactive just trying to get out there, learn more about this species,” he says.

His team’s Jonah crab research helped shape the rules for the new fishery at the state level.

Now the fishery is poised to expand to federal waters – a change that’s mostly symbolic of the fishery taking off, Carloni says, since fishermen will land their crabs in state waters regardless. 

Public comment on the federal regulations is open until April 22.

Carloni says there’s much more research to do in the next few years on how to catch Jonah crabs without depleting their population - including the best time of year, size, age, sex and quantity of crab. 

“In the Gulf of Maine, if they do become more of a targeted species, [then] we have that foundation, we know more about their biology and movement patterns, things of that nature,” he says.

That research, with the Wells National Estuarine Reserve in Maine, also focuses on the potential for a claw fishery – where fishermen catch Jonah crabs, remove one or two claws for sale, and throw the live crab back.

Carloni says they’re studying crabs’ survival rates depending on claw removal to see if and how such a fishery might be sustainable.   

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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