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Atlantic Deep-Sea Red Crab: An Observer's Perspective

July 12, 2023

Robert Bland has 19 years of experience as a fisheries observer. His new blog shares what it’s like fishing for Atlantic deep-sea red crab—a unique insight to a fishery many don't know about.

A commercial fishing vessel is at sea. The back deck is loaded with several dozen squat round traps made of orange netting. In the foreground are metal fish sorting bins, orange mesh bait bags, and blue plastic fish totes. Along the left side of the vessel are coils of rope in a gear deployment contraption. There is a slight chop to the water and the sky is blue and cloudless. An Atlantic deep-sea red crab fishing vessel at sea. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Robert Bland

A fisherman goes to sea to catch fish. I go to sea to catch data. Well, okay, I don’t really catch data, but I do gather vital information on fishing activities that’s important for fisheries management. I am what’s called a fisheries observer. I get to witness a unique side of fishing that most never see or even knew existed. That’s what I love about my job!

It’s more than taking a ride on a boat and watching what happens. Things have to be done a certain way so we can provide the best science available for ocean stewardship and help to ensure informed management decisions are based on sound science.

A gray plastic fish tote is filled with dozens of silvery-white fish with spots along their sides and light blue along their backs. There is an orange mesh bag at upper right filled with at least two fish.
A fish tote filled with Atlantic menhaden used as bait for Atlantic deep-sea red crab. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Robert Bland

Last May, I sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a commercial fishing vessel targeting Atlantic deep-sea red crab. When I arrived at the vessel, the crew was loading bait and provisions for the trip. The bait used for red crab fishing is Atlantic menhaden.

The journey to the fishing grounds took about 15 hours. We fished in the canyons along the continental shelf about 100 miles southeast of New York City. The fishing grounds for red crab run from Hague Line—the international boundary that divides U.S. and Canadian waters on Georges Bank—south to North Carolina. The canyons are deep—about 300 to 500 fathoms. That’s about the length of five to eight NFL football fields end to end.

A bright red-orange crab lays on a flat surface made by turning a gray plastic tote upside down. Next to the crab is a white plastic strip with black lines for measuring things, a note pad, mechanical pencil, and calipers—another tool for measuring things.
Measuring Atlantic deep-sea red crabs at sea. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Robert Bland

The crew hauled, baited, and set three strings of pots each and every day for 8 days. Each string had 200 pots attached to it. This makes for very long days of fishing and data collecting, but the time goes fast. While on a trip like this, I take a subsample of catch from each string to collect information like crab weight and size. I also collect other information and data as needed, and note what the captain keeps.

For the most part, the weather during this trip was comfortable—not too hot, not too cold. On one of the days, the weather changed and we were hit with a heavy rain squall. These squalls cause the seas to rise and the winds to become very strong, making it hard to see. We all figured a way to work through it. Having good foul-weather gear is a real bonus. Near the end of the trip, a 6-foot wave hit the vessel broadside, splashing everyone on deck. We all had a good laugh at our unfortunate soaking.

A gray colored dolphin’s dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water as it dives beneath the ocean’s surface, causing a splash.
Risso’s dolphin prefers deeper offshore waters, especially near the continental shelf edge and slope. They can dive to at least 1,000 feet and hold their breath for 30 minutes. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Robert Bland

One of the many things I enjoy about being an observer is the unpredictability of each trip. From the crews and vessels that I work with to the variety of unique sea life I get to witness, it’s never a dull moment. This is what has kept me going for 19 years! For example, during this trip, I saw many Risso’s dolphins just hanging out as we hauled gear. I also saw a rare sighting of skuas flying around the vessel. They’re a predatory seabird of the North Atlantic.

A pinkish-orange fish lies on its side on top of a white plastic strip with black lines for measuring things. Just above the measuring strip is a notebook and a mechanical pencil.
After 19 years of observing, Robert still encounters new-to-him fish like this Arctic threebearded rockling. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Robert Bland

Since red crabs live deep in the ocean, occasionally a rare deep-sea fish or other marine creature comes up in a pot. On this trip, an Arctic threebearded rockling came onboard. This was a new species to me so I took pictures of it for our Species Verification Program.

As we headed home from this 9-day trip, I thought about all that I saw and did. I also took some time to think about what I would do with all my well-deserved time off. As always though, I’m looking forward to my next at-sea adventure!

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Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on September 20, 2023