November 15, 2010

The Crab Man

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

Jon Williams, a Westport fisherman, is working to make the Atlantic deep-sea red crab as popular as the West Coast's king, snow and Dungeness varieties.

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Jon Williams, a fisherman from Westport who has built a business around deep-sea red crab fishing, stands near his boat, the Hannah Boden, along the Portland waterfront.

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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Atlantic deep-sea red crabs spend their lives 2,000 feet under the sea on the edge of the continental shelf. Once on shore, they are either processed immediately or held live in tanks.

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Only the males are caught, because there is no market for the smaller females.

Boats go out for about 10 days at a time, fishing with 600 traps, about 4 feet high, baited with horse mackerel.

The limit on the fishery is 4 million pounds a year.

Its Latin name is Chaceon quinquedens.

One hundred pounds of whole crab translates into 35 pounds of meat.

The crabs are fished from the Gulf of Maine to Virginia.

They live on the muddy bottom and scavenge for worms, other benthic invertebrates and trawl discards.

They grow slowly and may live more than 15 years.

The back shell, or carapace, may reach 7 inches wide.

The meat is described as particularly sweet compared to that of other species.

Fifteen years after he started to fish for the crabs 120 miles off the East Coast, Williams is close to achieving his goal of putting the obscure crustacean on the culinary map.

"It is very little-known, but we are trying to change that," said Williams.

While many fishermen dispute scientists' assessments of the health of New England's groundfish stocks and other marine species, Williams has actively sought out researchers' help. The results have allowed him to become virtually a one-man fishery.

He owns the majority of the handful of permits allowed to catch deep-sea red crab -- a fishery valued at $2.4 million to $4.2 million a year between 2004 and 2008, according to the New England Fishery Management Council. Williams owns the dominant share of the crab fishing fleet and has just opened his own deep-sea red crab processing plant.

After an eight-year effort, the Atlantic deep-sea red crab last year became the only fish species on the East Coast and the only crab fishery in the world to be certified as sustainably fished by the Marine Stewardship Council, considered the gold standard of sustainable fisheries accreditors. Williams is betting that the hard-won accreditation and the growing demand for sustainably caught seafood will make the red crab a regular at high-end seafood counters and on restaurant menus.

Williams, 52, grew up in Mechanic Falls in a family that didn't fish. He started out captaining marine research vessels after graduating from Maine Maritime Academy. He then spent a decade fishing for king crab and snow crab in the Bering Sea, off Alaska.

He switched to the Atlantic deep-sea red crab in 1995, after spotting a help-wanted ad seeking a captain for the Hannah Boden, a swordfishing boat that was being equipped for crab fishing in the off season. The boat gained fame as the sister ship of the Andrea Gail, which sank in the 1991 so-called No-Name Storm, the subject of the book and movie "The Perfect Storm."

When Williams started going after red crab, it was an on-again, off-again, unregulated fishery. He saw the possibilities in a niche market for the crab, which he originally sold to the Red Lobster restaurant chain as a generic crab product. Williams bought his first boat, the Hannah Boden, in 1996.

When he learned that two Alaskan factory ships with 50-man crews were headed to the East Coast intending to fish for deep-sea red crabs after their own fishery collapsed, he alerted regulators.

"I knew they were capable of totally destroying the resource," said Williams.

Williams convinced regulators to shut down the fishery for a year, in 2000, which led to the first-ever management plan for deep-sea red crab by the New England Fishery Management Council.

The plan limits the catch to 75,000 pounds per trip and 4 million pounds a year. Only five permits are allowed, and those were awarded to those already historically in the fishery, a small group that included Williams. The rules made the fishery unattractive to the factory boats.

Since then, Williams has gained majority ownership of the five permits, at a price he declined to make public. He has put together a fleet of four boats.

He started pursuing research grants and working with scientists, such as Rick Wahle, at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in South Bristol, and Shelly Tallack, at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

The goal was to understand the abundance of Atlantic deep-sea red crabs and the impact of harvesting on the species. Armed with that information, Williams could then apply for Marine Stewardship Council certification.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Eric Cook, a seafood associate team leader at Whole Foods Market in Portland, stocks fresh crabmeat processed by The Atlantic Red Crab Co., which Jon Williams opened last year.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Capt. Tim Foley and crewman Giovanni Lux aboard the Hannah Boden prepare to set traps for the Atlantic deep-sea red crab during gear selectivity trials in 2006.

Shelly Tallack/Gulf of Maine Research Institute

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