Jonah crabs become an emerging opportunity alongside lobster

Jan 25, 2023 | Fish Tales

Andrew and George Spalt, and their brother Eric, are committed to the Jonah Crab fishery.

By Doreen Leggett

Andrew Spalt sat at a corner table at Fishermen’s View, a popular restaurant along the Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich, with a tortilla-chip ringed bowl of Jonah Crab hummus in front of him and a Jonah Crab melt sandwich in his hand.

The waitress came by and they chatted about the owners, Bob and Denny Colbert, who have been catching Jonah crab for decades and prepare it a host of different ways – Jonah Crab nachos anyone?

The Colberts’ boats land at the Sandwich Marina and people can buy fresh Jonah Crab at their retail shop as well as order it on the menu. But the crabs are mainly processed by Kildare Fisheries, on Prince Edward Island in Canada, where Jonah crab Spalt lands go as well.

Spalt entered the business a few years ago, joining an increasing number of local fishermen who traditionally fished for lobster and threw Jonah crabs overboard as a nuisance. Landings have jumped from around two million pounds in the 1990s to 11 million in 2021.

The increase has been driven by greater market demand as well as fewer lobsters in warming southern New England waters. Even so, it can be difficult to purchase the crab locally, or find it on menus.

That difficulty has prompted Al Cestaro from Eastham to begin to lobby for shoreside infrastructure.

“When I talk about coastal resiliency, it’s not about dunes. It starts with people,” said Cestaro. “Too many times (local seafood) goes overseas, out of the country to be processed, and then comes back.”

Cestaro, who doesn’t fish for Jonah Crab but over the years has been involved in many aspects of the local fishery, said many businesses process lobster, but few handle crab. As lobstermen and other fixed gear fishermen (fishermen whose gear remains in the water) confront increasing regulations, bottom lines are threatened. Crabs can help.

“Fishermen have to be flexible and figure out new revenue streams. There are plenty of people in the world who want that crab,” Cestaro said.

Spalt, and his two brothers, Eric and George, bought their first boat – F/V Miss Emma – to go for the sweet-tasting crustacean.

“My brothers and I went into business about three years ago,” Andrew, 33, said. “It took us a little while to figure it out.”

His dad and his uncle, James and Pete, had owned the Hyannis-based Cape Spray Fisheries, a scallop and lobster business that in 1998 was the subject of a major investigation for fisheries fraud. The brothers were banned from fishing, though the edict was rescinded years later.

Andrew was five at the time, and although that was a difficult period, the elder Spalts were steeped in the fisheries and their knowledge and experience in the industry greatly influenced the next generation.

James still helps his sons out whenever he can.

“He’ll jump in and start doing work. He loves it. That’s what him and his brother did for 30 years,” Andrew said.

After the three sons graduated from Barnstable High, they went down to Louisiana and worked running boats and supplying rigs for various oil companies, including Harvey Gulf International. There was some overlap down South for the brothers, but they worked there for varying amounts of time, Andrew getting his degree in Business Management.

Before Andrew headed down, he had crewed on a dayboat scalloper. “I don’t think I was super productive, but that is where I started,” he said. “When you were done with a trip there was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. The money is good. It is hard, but as tired as you are when you are done, you feel great.”

Around the same time Andrew was coming back North, George came back to the Cape and decided he wanted to go fishing.

He went on a few gillnetting trips out of Chatham and then offshore lobstering out of New Hampshire.

“That was pretty darn hard,” he said with a laugh.

George started working on big scallop boats out of New Bedford, with both brothers. As they got better they moved up to more lucrative boats and bigger shares.

The brothers were banking money and George bought a scallop permit in case they went that route. They decided to go into business together, although Eric – who has a house in Osterville – continues to work on New Bedford boats.

“It’s about freedom really. The ability to pave your own path,” Andrew said.

They bought the 60-foot Miss Emma and an offshore lobster permit in the spring of 2020 and made short trips, usually landing in New Bedford. The crabs were shipped to Canada.

“The challenge for Jonah is the processing, people aren’t going to eat it like a lobster,” Andrew said.  “I don’t think it will ever be what lobster is, but there is a lot of room for growth.”

The crabs are a live product and more sensitive to temperature than lobsters, hence short trips. But then the Spalts invested in a refrigerated seawater system, which allows them to stay out longer and catch more.

“You can’t have them over 60 degrees,” said Andrew. They only harvest males over a certain size – about a fist.

They have done well and were able to buy another several hundred tags so have more than 1,500 traps. Andrew saw the price per pound for Jonah Crab jump from 30-40 cents a pound to 85 cents or so when he started. Now it can be up to $2.10.

The Miss Emma can fish for Jonah crab year-round, although Andrew says a 60-foot boat is small in the winter. He added that George is the one that will captain her in ugly weather.

The two balance each other out. They are also thinking of bringing one of their sisters into the business to help with marketing.

They attached the scallop permit to the Miss Emma as well, and will scallop for much of the spring. Though scallop quota has been cut, sea scallops are still an essential part of the business plan.

“That is your living money,” Andrew said. “You don’t want to take from the business.”

Andrew has been staying on shore lately, looking for another boat and another offshore lobster permit so they can expand. The other big hope is that local processing opportunities arise, to end reliance on Canada.

“It would be great to figure out a way to do it here. But it is what it is for now,” said George.


e-Magazine PDF’s