On a calm, sleepy morning in the quiet town of Zeballos, the Ehatis Fisheries boat pulled away from the dock. Laden with eighteen crab traps, herring bait, and detailed site maps, Ehattesaht/Chinehkint and Uu-a-thluk Fisheries staff set out for the summer Hasaamac (crab) population survey.
Harvesting and trading food from the ocean is, and has always been, an integral part of life in Nuu-chah-nulth communities. However, the right to exercise this long-lived tradition has not always been recognized by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
Citing low species abundance, DFO barred access to an economic Crab Fishery for Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, Hesquiaht, and Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations. This came after a court concluded that access to Hasaamac is a right for these nations. In lieu of commercial access, in 2018 DFO allowed a small economic exploratory survey to be conducted in these territories.
Although this project started as an economic exploratory survey, fisheries managers of these three nations knew they needed to gain a better understanding of Hasaamac health in their territories. As a result, in 2020, the project turned into a crab population survey.
A crab population survey is the collection of data that describes the composition of crabs in a specific area. It allows the surveyors to determine the average size, age, number of males vs females in a population as well as the overall health of individuals.
“It is important for the knowledge [about Hasaamac] to be documented so that it can be passed on to the next generation,” said Helena Michael, fisheries technician with Ehattesaht First Nation.
By collecting data using the same method and at the same location many times a year, researchers can observe population changes over time, as well as how one location compares to another.
On the quiet mid-summer morning, the Ehattesaht/Uu-a-thluk team set out to do exactly that.
The first day of sampling saw the team set nine traps at one site and nine traps at a second. At each site, three traps were set at depths of 20 meters, three at 40 meters and another three at 60 meters.
Setting the traps at different depths tells researchers where on the ocean floor Hasaamac are living. The scent of the herring used as bait travels through the water and attracts the Hasaamac to the traps. Traps are soaked in the water for 24 hours.
Early the next day, the team returned to the water to pull up the traps.
Each crab was carefully measured, and the hardness of the shell recorded. Tracking size helps determine if there are enough crabs available to support a fishery. Shell hardness shows if a harvest will be damaging to a population. This is because crabs need to molt (shedding of their outer shell) to grow. They shed their hard old shell that is too small. Under the old shell is a new soft one that they enlarge by pumping it up with sea water.
It takes a couple of months for the new shell to harden. During this time, they can be easily damaged and a crab with a soft shell is more likely to be damaged and injured when trapped. The survey can show if an area has periods of high soft shell that need to be avoided when planning fisheries.
Sometimes the herring bait attracts other marine animals to the traps such as sea stars, flatfish, or even Lingcod. This is known as by-catch. Since it is of great importance to understand what other species might be affected by crab traps, the team took notes on all the species caught and returned them, unharmed, to their watery homes.
The goal of the Hasaamac surveys is for Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, Hesquiaht, and Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations to determine the health of Hasaamac populations in their Ha-ha-houlthee (chiefly territories) with the hope of increasing access to the species for generations to come.
The team will be back out on the water this fall to collect data that will support the nations’ ability to make informed decisions about Hasaamac harvesting and management.