By Carol Clark
The golden crab is a treasure hidden as deep as 2,000 feet under the sea off the Atlantic coast of Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico. This obscure, slow-growing crustacean inhabits cold waters of the continental slope, often 100 miles offshore, below the strong, warm currents of the Gulf Stream.
Only a few Florida fishermen hold the rights to harvest golden crabs, and they’ve mostly earned it through their own grit, guts and ingenuity.
“It’s a small but really complex fishery,” says Tracy Yandle, an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, who studies issues around the regulation of the fishing industry and the governance of natural resources.
The Florida golden crab fishery serves as a case study for how fishermen can not only survive what the sea throws at them, but navigate through business and bureaucratic hurdles. Yandle, along with Scott Crosson and Brent Stoffle from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published a study of the fishery’s renegotiation of property rights in the International Journal of the Commons.
Yandle notes that a crew of crabbers from Alaska came down to the Gulf of Mexico to try their hand at golden crabs but left without making a profit – much to the delight of the Florida fishermen. “Their lines got tangled, they lost their traps, and they went home,” Yandle says. “You have to have a lot of technical skill and experience in that area because the Gulf Stream moves your gear everywhere.”
Even if you can keep track of your miles-long line of traps, you’ve got to grapple the cable by towing for it with a hook, then haul the traps up through hundreds of feet of water. “You’re pulling up cold water crabs through the fast-moving, warm waters of the Gulf Stream,” Yandle says. “You’ve got to get the crabs through that as fast as you can if you want them to survive.”
After getting the crabs onto your deck alive, it’s important to keep them that way. The crabbers developed refrigerated circulating seawater systems onboard “to quickly chill the harvested crabs back down to the cold temperatures of their native habitat on the deep ocean floor,” the researchers note in their paper. “This practically eliminated the previous severe mortality rate of up to 80 percent six days after harvest” making the fishery more economically viable by allowing it to expand to new markets.
Aboard a crab boat in 1983, the early days of the fishery. (Photo courtesy Bill Whipple.)
The golden crab was not on anyone’s radar until 1976 when an unmanned research submersible dove down to the continental slope and captured footage of them clinging to boulders near coral reefs. In 1984 the golden crab was recognized as a distinct species and given the name Chaceon fenneri.
Meanwhile, crabbers had started experimenting with traps and specialized techniques to harvest the crabs from their habitat of a rocky, deep-water seabed.
Despite the abundance of the crabs, their economic potential was slow to develop. One problem is the crab’s shell, a golden-beige color, does not change to a bright red, like other crabs, when they are finished cooking. “The crabbers had a devil of a time with restaurants that would keep boiling the crabs until they turned to rubber, waiting for them to turn red,” Yandle says.
Over 25 years, however, the golden crab fishery, currently consisting of only seven participants owning 11 permits, evolved into an economically viable niche market. “The people involved are really smart,” Yandle says. “Fishing may seem like a simple thing, but making a living at it is not simple at all. It involves layers and layers of details.”
The golden crab fishery is regulated by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council. Yandle serves on the Scientific and Statistical Committee of the council, which advises the council as it makes decisions based on economic and ecological factors. “It’s a great opportunity to have an influence on policy,” Yandle says. “What I bring to the table is expertise on the social-science side of the fishing industry. If you don’t have that aspect of the story, then you don’t fully understand a fishery.”
Individual transferable quotas, or ITQs, are one method the council uses to help fisheries develop sustainable management. ITQs give individual fishing permit holders the flexibility to sell all, or part of their catching rights to another individual or entity – as long as the set quota for the permit is not exceeded.
Yandle studied a fishery in New Zealand where an ITQ system worked well, giving permit holders more options. “Some chose to sell their catching rights and re-outfit their boats to go into the commercial charter business,” she says. “Another used the money from his catching rights set up a café in town.”
“Fishing may seem like a simple thing, but making a living at it is not simple at all," Yandle says. (Photo courtesy Bill Whipple.)
The golden crab fishery, however, is regulated not by ITQs, but by dividing the Florida Gulf coast into three zones. Permit holders are restricted to a single area, a system similar to what is known as TURF, or territorial user rights fisheries.
When some of the golden crab fleet from Fort Lauderdale pushed for switching to an ITQ system a few years ago, members of the fleet from other areas strongly protested. Yandle flew down to Florida to attend public hearings on the issue.
The Fort Lauderdale fleet tended to be specialized. “All they do is golden crab fishing and they wanted to lock in their portion of their catch through the ITQ system and perhaps grow their business by expanding their crabbing efforts,” Yandle explains.
Members of the fleet based out of other parts of Florida, however, tended to be generalists. “In Key West they would spend part of the year fishing for lobster or shrimping,” Yandle says. “If the spiny lobster stocks went down, they could hit golden crab harder. They had a diverse portfolio and they valued that.”
In the end, the generalists won and the zone system stayed intact. “It was fascinating to watch these small-scale stakeholders stand up in this very public way and fight for what they wanted,” Yandle says. “They took it very seriously.”
The proponents for the zone system made a case for how they had deep knowledge of the currents and coral reefs of their areas, and had developed organic systems of communication with permit holders within the area. “It was a great example of how small, social groups are able to do real, community-based, informal regulation of themselves,” Yandle says.
Delving into the nuances of the golden crab fishery “was an eye opener,” she adds, which could have implications for other fisheries around the country weighing ITQs versus other systems. “It really does matter how you craft laws and regulations because they do have profound influences on behaviors, both good and bad.”
Yandle says she will continue to follow developments in the Florida golden crab fishery. As she and her NOAA colleagues note in their paper, “the current divergence in business plans between the crabbers in the different fishing zones has the potential to cause disruption in the coming years,” particularly if the fleetwide quota is exceeded. “The simplest solution to this dilemma,” they add, “would be to build upon the success of the zone system by dividing the fleetwide quota between the different fisher zones, creating a true TURF – provided the council can find zone allocations acceptable to the different groups of crabbers.”
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