For Roger Orr, the secret to successful crab trapping in James Bay — an unusual feat — was largely in the bait.
“I eat Klik. I go hunting and it’s a handy thing to have. It’s got a lot of fat,” said Orr, referring to the canned meat. Orr owns the Retro Daze Café in Chisasibi, Que., the largest of the Cree communities located about 1,400 kilometres north of Montreal.
“[I thought to myself] I bet crabs would get attracted to this because it’s got salt and grease,” he said.
Sure enough, they were.
Just how much they liked it though, would take a while to discover.
In mid-August, after years of hearing about the presence of crabs in James Bay and several weeks of being somewhat obsessed with trap designs, bait combinations and sonar searching for spots to lower the traps, Orr and his friend Bertie Wapachee, who also runs the local business development centre, found a crab.
To actually hold one, it was like landing on the moon.– Roger Orr, Chisasibi business owner
“[It was] absolute excitement … like just a feeling of victory and success,” said Orr, who put the bait into old sweat socks to keep the sea lice from eating it.
“You worked so hard at something [and] to actually hold one, it was like landing on the moon.”
After years of watching Discovery Channel reality shows like Cold Water Cowboys and Deadliest Catch, Orr was hooked.
“As a people, we never had a reason to be out that far [in the bay] trying to harvest because everything we needed was in the shallows, right along the coast,” said Orr.
“Ever since I was a kid, I always wondered what was out there … who knows what else is out there?”
Wildlife biologist says catch ‘really new and interesting’
For Félix Boulanger, a wildlife management biologist with the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB), news that a crab had been found in the bay was exciting.
“It came as really new and interesting information for us,” said Boulanger from his office in Waskaganish, Que. The board was created after the signing of the Eeyou Marine Region Land Claims Agreement with the federal government in 2010.
While not a crab expert, Boulanger said what Orr and Wapachee pulled from the water appears to be what’s known as a toad crab. He said it is typically smaller and more elongated than the more popular snow crab. He added the toad crab is increasingly harvested in the Atlantic region of Canada.
Boulanger said the presence of crabs in James Bay is not very well documented at the moment and getting a better understanding of it and other wildlife in the bay is a priority and a large part of the mandate of the EMRWB.
That first crab that Orr and Wapachee found was about 30 metres under water, about 10 kilometres off the shore of Fort George Island, which is near Chisasibi.
A week later Orr brought up a second crab and knew they were on to something.
“I knew these crabs wouldn’t be here, they wouldn’t survive, if these were the only crabs in James Bay,” said Orr, who made still more modifications to his trap design and kept searching for other potential sites.
Last weekend, on what was the last run of the summer, Orr and his nephew hit the jackpot, bringing up a total of 28 crabs in two traps.
WATCH | Orr and his nephew show off their crab catch:
Of this catch, Orr kept a few of the larger males and made himself a special supper.
“They were delicious,” said Orr. “They didn’t have a lot of meat, [but] it was really quite the experience. They were sweet.”
Orr is the process of buying a bigger boat so he can more safely explore the deeper waters of the bay. He said he will continue to trap crabs, but said he doesn’t have plans at this point to add it to the menu at his restaurant.
The Chisasibi Business Service Centre strategic plan includes a project to explore the bay for sustainable commercial fishery possibilities.