04/11/2014 03:07 EDT | Updated 06/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Fisheries Department looks to expand green crab fishery in Maritimes

HALIFAX - The federal government is looking at expanding a pilot project to help reduce the number of green crabs in Maritime waters, a measure that is being lauded by two fishermen groups in the region.

Known as the "cockroach of the sea," the green crab is an invasive species from Europe and northern Africa known for its aggressive and territorial behaviour. The crustacean can wreak havoc on other fisheries as it chows down on clams, mussels, oysters and scallops.

The Fisheries Department is proposing to offer 70 eel fishermen the opportunity to trade in their eel licences to catch green crabs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The department declined an interview request. But in an email, spokeswoman Krista Petersen said 30 commercial eel fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia have swapped their licences to catch green grabs in a similar pilot project over the last three years.

Leonard LeBlanc, president of the Cape Breton-based Gulf of Nova Scotia Fishermen's Coalition, said he's eager to take steps to reduce the number of green crabs.

"Any positive use that we get of the resources we have sitting on our doorstep is a plus," said LeBlanc, whose coalition represents two eel fishermen. "But I think it's going to be a challenge, having seen the beast myself.

"I don't think we'll ever clean them out, but anything we can do to reduce their impact, it's got to be a plus for other key resources."

Greg McKee, executive director of the P.E.I. Shellfish Association, said he sees great potential in creating a green crab fishery and urged the federal government to open up the licences to other fishermen.

"We would welcome the opportunity to add that as potential income for our shell fishers," said McKee.

"While they're going out there, they could easily fish green crab."

Luke Poirier, a graduate student at the University of Prince Edward Island, said he's trying to emulate a harvesting process in Europe with a similar crab in the hopes that fishermen in Canada will eventually be able market the green crab as a food item.

In Italy, the Mediterranean crab — the green crab's visually indistinguishable genetic cousin — is harvested at a certain point before it moults by identifying an external visual cue, said Poirier.

"We hope to replicate this process with the green crab in our waters," Poirier said.

Poirier said if his project succeeds, it would be the first time in North America that the green crab would be available for human consumption and the benefits would be two-fold: providing fishermen with additional income and reducing the number of green crabs.

"It's definitely yet to make it onto the common person's dinner plate," Poirier said. "But we're hoping we might be able to accomplish something, anything that would be able to give a supplement to these fishermen's income."

Poirier said fishermen who currently catch green crabs sell them as bait for lobster. He said they only receive about 83 cents per pound, whereas green crabs if caught for food may have the potential to yield more than that.

Petersen said discussions with the fisheries industry are ongoing and it's not yet known when a green crab fishery in the Gulf would launch, if the proposal goes ahead.