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Crisis Point Reached in Brown Crab Fishery as Prices Plummet

The Brown crab fishery is in crisis as fishermen are facing a reduction of up to 80% in their earnings due to the current closure of the Chinese markets.

The lack of access to markets in China was initially due to the different approaches of the EU and the People’s Republic of China when it comes to permitted levels of cadmium in crustaceans, the maximum legal limit in China is much lower than in Europe or other countries.

But now that issue has been eclipsed by the rapid spread of the Corona virus and the subsequent enforced restrictions on the movement of goods.

A spokesperson for the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association (NIFA) and its sister group the National Inshore Fishermen’s Organisation (NIFO) described the current issues facing the crab sector, particularly market access to China “as probably the most immediate and concerning issue currently facing their membership and probably the wider inshore sector to date.

Many of our members are now highly dependent on crab, Ireland’s inshore sector in general is now highly dependent on crab, and this dependency has become more acute in recent years because of a number of complex reasons.

There has been significant investment in the fishery in recent years, effort has increased and catch rates have declined. In terms of profitability this was offset in recent times by inflated first sale prices to satisfy demand in the Chinese market.

Restrictions on access to that market, firstly due to incompatible testing regimes for cadmium have now been eclipsed by the impacts of the recent Corona virus outbreak, which has sent shockwaves through global seafood markets.

If anything can be learned from the last six months or so, it’s probably the need for as broad a market base as possible. Industry sentiment is extremely low at the moment, with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the sector as many operators prepare for the start of 2020 season.

Some of our members are reporting being offered as low as €1.50/kg for premium grade hen crab by well-established processors, this is in contrast to around €5-6/kg being offered this time last year by live exporters. Fishermen have always been price takers and are likely to feel the full brunt of any market difficulties.

It’s unlikely that many operators will be able to sustain what could turn into an 80% drop in gross earnings and we could be facing a crisis of unprecedented levels. Even prior to issues regarding market access came into play last year some of our members were reporting a decline in profitability, they attributed this to a decline in catch rates which in turn they attributed to an increase in effort.

Some are talking about the need for management, in that it combined with a broad marketing strategy might be the only solution to protect long term profitability. We would hope the Inshore strategy might act as the vehicle to deliver this, but conversations on the issue will have to start sooner rather than later and if first sale prices don’t increase in the short term, intervention in terms of some form of “emergency aid” may be needed.