Snow crab are found in the North Atlantic from Greenland in the northeast Atlantic and from southern Labrador to the Gulf of Maine. They prefer deep, cold-water conditions and are fished at depths from 60 to 280 m and in water temperatures of -1 to 6˚C. Canada is the world’s largest producer of Snow crab, providing about 2/3 of the global supply. Over 70 percent of exports from Canada are destined for the United States with China and Japan as other major markets. There are approximately 60 Snow Crab Management Areas in Canada spanning four DFO regions. In 2010, 4,326 snow crab fishery licenses were issued.

Snow crab fishing areas map

The management of the snow crab fishery is based on annual total allowable catch and quotas. Scientists at DFO estimate the population size and based on biological parameters (such as reproduction, growth rate, size at maturity, etc.) recommend a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) to industry. Each license holder is allocated a specific tonnage of crab (individual transferable quota). Other conservation measures are used to limit effort:

  • only male crabs that meet or exceed the minimum legal size (95 mm carapace width) may be harvested: female and undersized male crabs are returned alive to the ocean.
  • Minimum mesh size (13.5 cm) is set to allow females and small crabs to escape.
  • seasons (for instance April 16 – May 16 and July 22 – August 29 for Area 20-22),
  • areas (Eastern Cape Breton licenses are either for Area 19, 20-22, or 23)
  • A maximum number of traps during the fishing season within specific Crab Management Areas and sub areas within the Crab Fishing Areas.
  • soft-shelled (also known as white crab) protocols: If a high incidence of soft-shell crabs (>10%) are captured, the fishery will close for the remainder of the season in that particular grid (small sections of the fishing areas) of harvesters are instructed to move off those grounds by variation order and/or economics.

It takes from 7 to 9 years for males to reach legal size for harvesting. Snow crab live from about 14 to 16 years. Males can grow to a size (carapace width) of about 15 centimetres, with largest males growing almost twice as large as the largest females.

The snow crab fishery in eastern Canada began in 1960 with incidental by catches by groundfish draggers near Gaspé, Quebec. In Nova Scotia the snow crab fishery began in the late 1970s. The fishery grew in the 1980s to become one of the most important and lucrative fishery in Eastern Canada.

Following the imposition of groundfish moratoria in the early 1990s, and in part due to pressure from inshore fishermen to share more of the resource, temporary crab allocations were made to non-traditional crab harvesters in CFA 23. The temporary allocations became permanent in 2005. Fish harvesters with crab allocations (NOT licenses) group their allocations together and have them fished by contracted boats. Allocations were also provided to the First Nations in response to the Marshall Supreme Court decision and these were turned into permanent commercial licenses with the buyback of quota from the Temporary Fleet (2001-2002).

Eastern Cape Breton snow crab harvesters operate in one of 3 management areas:

  • CFA 19 is fished by fish harvesters from Margaree to Dingwall with allocations of 3 to 26 traps with each trap allocated a quota. Fishing season lasts from mid-July to mid-September (or until the quota is caught up. 2015 TAC was over 2 million kgs. This fishery is described in detail at:
  • N-ENS or North Eastern Nova Scotia (previously CFA 20-22) are managed as one unit and include 78 licenses fishing a total quota of 783,000 kgs (2014). Harvesters from Neil’s Harbour to Louisbourg fish in this area. Fishing season lasts from mid-July to Mid-September.
  • S-ENS or South Eastern Nova Scotia (previously CFA 23-24) includes 116 licenses fishing a total of 11.3 million kgs (2014). Fishing season lasts from April 2 to Sept 30.

Science: Part of each TAC is used to fund science and associated costs such as scientific surveys, tagging of crab and data analysis through a Use of Fish policy announced by DFO in 2013. For instance of the 26 million kgs allocated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Area 19 included), 400,000 kg of the TAC are used to fund the science work.

For more information: