Phillips, competitors agree to minimum crab size in Asian markets

Phillips Foods and 10 other U.S. crab importers agree to voluntary limits starting July 1

March 28, 2011|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

In the two decades that Baltimore's Phillips Foods has been importing crabmeat from Asia, fishermen in countries such as Indonesia have had to work harder for each catch and their harvests have yielded increasingly smaller blue swimming crabs.

Now Phillips and other major U.S. crab importers, all competitors, are joining forces to reverse the trend that they played a major part in causing. The importers say they're taking steps to protect the future of what has become a key global fishery and prevent the type of overfishing that led to declines in Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

The 11 largest importers of blue swimming crabs in the United States agreed last week to voluntarily set a minimum size for the crabs harvested in Indonesia and the Philippines. Those nations are the two largest markets for the importers, all members of the National Fisheries Institute's Crab Council.

"We're in danger of fishing the population down to the level where it might take years to recover," said Ed Rhodes, co-director of Phillips' division of aquaculture and sustainability. "We don't want to get there. Phillips' positions is we want to make sure we have a sustainable fishery into the future."

The seafood company, which operates restaurants in Maryland and the East Coast and sells crab cakes and crabmeat across the country, helped develop the crab fishery in Asia as demand for the product grew.

The company was one of the first to export blue swimming crabmeat to the United States, and Indonesia and the Philippines now supply about 90 percent of the crabmeat that the company sells to supermarkets and restaurants and uses to make "Maryland-style" crab cakes.

As competitors followed Phillips' lead over the years, the Asian fishery has come under greater pressure. Now executives at Phillips say they feel a responsibility to help end the harvesting of undersized crabs in Asian markets.

As of July 1, Crab Council members will no longer purchase or process crabs under 8 centimeters wide, an initial number based on the minimum size at which the crabs are able to breed. The council also will pay for a study to determine the most effective minimum size, which is likely to be greater than 8 centimeters, Rhodes said.

The adoption of size limits is the latest initiative from the Crab Council, formed in 2009 to focus on finding ways to sustain the Asian crab market, where regulation of the fishing industry is uneven, said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the Fisheries Institute, a trade group based in McLean, Va.

"A lot of these companies are acutely aware of what happened in the Chesapeake Bay and are really driven by a concern that they don't want that to happen elsewhere," Gibbons said. "They don't want this resource to go away. They're willing to not only put their money where their mouth is but have created minimum-size programs that will have impact."

Steve Phillips, Phillips' chief executive and son of the founders of the family-owned business, became concerned about the decreasing average size of the Asian crabs about four years ago, Rhodes said. Phillips began a push to get American and Indonesian crab processers that buy from the fishermen to organize and form an association with the goal of becoming certified as a sustainable fishery. Phillips led a similar push to organize crab producers in the Philippines.

Rhodes said further study is needed to determine the cause of the decline in areas that are still not heavily industrialized but are most likely being overfished. "It's a small-boat fishery, with close to tens of thousands of fishermen, and that number has increased over the years," he said.

As the Chesapeake Bay became unable to fulfill a growing U.S. demand for crabs, Phillips and other seafood companies turned to overseas markets to supply crabs similar to those found in the Chesapeake.

"They were looking to supplement that [demand], and that was a good thing," said Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But without strong conservation regulations in Asia, that population is bound to dwindle, too, he said.

"I take this as a positive sign to see [companies] implement a minimum size, but it is probably the most basic thing you should have in place to prevent a depleted population," Goldsborough said. "Starting in two countries with an 8-centimeter minimum size is certainly a start. It's in their best interest to do it."

In the Chesapeake Bay, local preservation efforts have led to a rebound in the crab population in the past two years.

The Crab Council's work in Indonesia and the Philippines has been paid for by grants from the World Bank and by contributions from the companies, which pay a self-imposed tax of 1.5 cents per pound of imported crabmeat toward sustainability efforts, such as programs to protect egg-bearing female crabs.

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