Jonah crab (Cancer borealis) are distributed in the waters of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean primarily from Newfoundland, Canada to Florida. The life cycle of Jonah crab is poorly described and what is known is largely compiled from a patchwork of studies. Female crab are believed to move nearshore during the late spring and summer and then return offshore in the fall and winter. Motivations for this inshore migration are unknown, but maturation, spawning, and molting have all been postulated. Due to the lack of a widespread and well-developed aging method for crustaceans, the age and growth of Jonah crab is poorly described. It is postulated that the size of maturity for Jonah crab in U.S. waters is between 4” and 5” based off of studies on the Scotian Shelf and Virginia. Like other Cancer crab species, Jonah crab consume a variety of prey including snails, arthropods, algae, mussels, and polychaetes.
The Jonah crab fishery has experienced a rapid increase in landings and value over the last 15 years. In the early 2000s, landings were roughly 2.6 million pounds and the fishery was valued at $1.5 million. By 2014, landings increased to over 17 million pounds with a value exceeding $12 million. It is believed that this rapid increase in landings are the result of an increase in demand as well as the poor condition of the Southern New England lobster stock, which has prompted fishermen to supplement their income with Jonah crab. Landings predominately come from Massachusetts (~70%) and Rhode Island (~25%) with the vast majority of Jonah crabs being caught in traps and pots. There is a small but historic claw fishery off the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware/Maryland and Virginia) which constitutes less than 1% of the total Jonah crab fishery. The magnitude of recreational landings is unknown, but are expected to be minimal.
The status of the Jonah crab fishery in federal or state waters is relatively unknown. There is no range wide stock assessment for Jonah crab. Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire conduct inshore state water trawl surveys but they provide minimal data because they are primarily focused on finish and encounter Jonah crab species infrequently. NOAA Fisheries conducts a trawl survey in federal waters which collects data on Cancer crab abundance and distribution, distinguishedbyspecies; however, this data has not yet been analyzed. Inferred high amounts of undocumented catch, along with inconsistencies in reported landings, make abundance difficult to estimate.
Jonah crab is managed under the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which was approved by the Board in August 2015, and Addendum I. The goal of the Jonah crab management plan is to promote conservation, reduce the possibility of recruitment failure, and allow the full utilization of the resource by the industry. The plan lays out specific management measures in the commercial fishery. These include a 4.75” minimum size with zero tolerance and a prohibition on the retention of egg-bearing females. In the recreational fishery, the FMP sets a possession limit of 50 whole crabs per person per day. Due to the lack of data on the Jonah crab fishery, the FMP implements fishery-dependent data collection.
Addendum I, approved in May 2016, establishes a bycatch limit of 1,000 crabs per trip for non‐trap gear (e.g., otter trawls, gillnets) and non‐lobster trap gear (e.g., fish, crab, and whelk pots) effective January 1, 2017. In doing so, the Addendum caps incidental landings of Jonah crab across all non‐directed gear types with a uniform bycatch allowance.