Take a Sea-to-Table Journey with Québec’s Snow Crab
As international demand for snow crab has skyrocketed, fishing families like the Landrys of Rimouski brave the well-known dangers of hauling in this precious catch.
As soon as the snow melts in late March, fishers along the Gulf of St. Lawrence head about 70 km out to sea to scoop a slightly horrifying delicacy from the ocean floor. Snow crabs live as many as 140 m below the surface and can span over 90 cm, about the length of a baseball bat. But even though they dwell in darkness and look like unsquashable spiders, they taste like spring itself. Their delicate, sweet flavour has made them an expensive global commodity, and the high prices they fetch reflect the risks and challenges of catching them.
Fishing for snow crabs is a notoriously dangerous pursuit that can quickly turn deadly, as wet boat decks in early spring are likely to freeze. Hypothermia and drowning are common perils in the industry, while the heavy machinery needed to haul in the traps — as much as 400 pounds when full — adds another hazard, especially when operating on choppy waters. These risks contribute to the species’ exorbitant price tag, but they’re only part of the story.
This year snow crab hit its highest value ever, forcing Quebecers to shell out between $15 and $21 a pound, a 20 per cent increase since 2021. The price jump has been caused by all sorts of factors, including reduced global supply over the last 10 years and rising inflation and gas prices that make operations more expensive at every step along the way. Boycotts related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are also partly to blame for the hike. Russian-caught snow crab previously made up approximately 10 per cent of the amount consumed in the world’s largest importer, the U.S. In 2022 the Canadian market jumped in to fill the gap, leaving less of the catch at home.
Despite steep costs, customers still line up around the block in front of Poissonnerie Gagnon in Rimouski, a fourth-generation family-owned business run by the Landry clan, who’ve been putting out to sea since the early 1900s. In Montréal, Lambert St-Cyr (whose girlfriend is a Landry) personally delivers snow crab to chefs at some of the city’s top restaurants, building lasting relationships along the way. To make his drop while the precious cargo are still alive, St-Cyr needs to travel the 1,160 km round trip in a refrigerated van within 24 hours of the crabs being caught.
In 2020 St-Cyr and Simon Boulet opened a specialty grocery store called Cinqàsept in the southwestern neighbourhood of Ville-Émard, through which they distribute the hyper-seasonal delicacy. When Montréal-based photographer Drowster heard about his old high school friends’ new business, he decided to head to Rimouski to follow the snow crab along St-Cyr’s biweekly journey.
The night before his trip, St-Cyr checks the weather to ensure conditions allow for fishing. He hops in his van the next morning at 6 a.m., already several hours after Denis Landry, his sons Samuel and David, and a couple crew members set off to haul in their catch. Out on the dark waters, the fishermen use cranes to lower their traps deep into icy waves where the temperature varies between -1.5 to 4 °C. Though the fishing family reports that the species remains plentiful in the St. Lawrence, they didn’t find any snow crab in the Côte-Nord region across the seaway from Rimouski this year, so they extended their search along their own side of the coast instead.
Between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. the seafarers and distributor meet at the docks, where a representative from Fisheries and Oceans Canada awaits to weigh the goods. A day’s catch can clock in anywhere between 1,500 to 15,000 pounds. Each fisher’s season lasts until they have caught their closely regulated 32,519 allotted tonnes (up from 24,261 in 2021). This tight cap wasn’t always in place, though. In the 1960s, few people cared to eat the leggy bottom-feeders, and the fishing permits were free. When diners first started craving the delicacy, you could buy three crabs for $0.25. They have since become Québec’s most valuable seafood export per pound, and 90 per cent of what gets caught in Canada is sold abroad.
As soon as his catch is loaded into the cooled van, St-Cyr hauls it all back to Montréal, where he prepares the next day’s deliveries. The crabs have a famously tough time outside of their natural habitat. Since they live at such great depths, high pressures, and cold temperatures, they’re not suited for tanks like their famous cousin, the lobster. Time is of the essence.
Delivering and feasting
Early in the morning, St-Cyr parks his delivery van outside Montréal restaurants where chefs are eager to receive their shipment still alive. The crustacean inspires a lot of gleeful feasting. In the American South, summertime is punctuated by crab boils where sausage, shrimp, and corn are also added to a huge pot before the contents get dumped onto a paper-covered table and everyone shares in the delight.
In Québec’s Bas-Saint-Laurent region, the preferred way to eat snow crab is to simply boil it in very salty water reminiscent of the nearby ocean. In some of Montréal’s most prized kitchens, however, the fresh spring delicacy gets transformed into elegant dishes with ingredients like smoked yogurt and miso emulsions.
The future of the snow crab as a popular delicacy is murky. High prices are making the crustacean an increasingly inaccessible luxury for many, and warming waters associated with climate change threaten to disrupt their migration patterns, as they have in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Though higher temperatures, increased predators, and disease have decimated snow crab populations and the crabbing industry this year in the North Pacific, for the time being, the snow crab’s greatest enemy in the St. Lawrence is the grey seal. These mammals eat 10 to 18 pounds of food a day, including female crabs (which are avoided by fishermen) along with the valuable eggs they carry. This issue could soon become direr as seal populations increase by 4 to 5 per cent a year. Unfortunately, it seems like grey seals share the refined culinary tastes of Montréal’s haute cuisine diners.
Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montréal-based writer, editor, translator, and occasional forest dweller. Her work has appeared in the Walrus, the Narwhal, CBC, the Globe and Mail, Elle Canada, Canadian Geographic, and enRoute.
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