HALIFAX – Hundreds of lobster boats remained tied up at wharfs throughout the Maritimes on Friday as fishermen and processors struggle with an industry beset by an oversupply of the crustaceans, rock-bottom prices and a strong Canadian dollar.
The fishermen’s association in P.E.I. said boats did not head out for a third day in a row over prices that dipped to about $2.75 a pound for small canner lobsters and $3.25 a pound for the larger, market ones.
The protest spilled over to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where lobster fishermen tied up and also said it’s not worth their while to steam out of port for a product that won’t cover the cost of fuel, bait and labour.
“There is strong talk out there of just ending the season — if you have the ability to stop the hemorrhaging, then you do,” Ian MacPherson, executive director of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, said from Charlottetown.
“It’s a very stressful and pressure-packed time for all parties involved.”
Tensions ratcheted up as various fishermen’s organizations staged demonstrations at Fisheries offices in P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, and an ad hoc group blockaded a processing plant on the Island only a couple of weeks after the season opened.
Prices for market-sized lobsters are about $2 less than what was expected. MacPherson said fishermen are looking for prices similar to what they were getting last year, at around $4.50 to $5 a pound.
But there appears to be little movement on either side of the dispute, with processors arguing they can’t afford to pay more for a product that is seeing uncertain demand and competition from other seafood industries.
For provinces like P.E.I. that export the bulk of their catch internationally, the global economic downturn has also hit processors hard as they try to sell a luxury food to countries struggling with their own financial distress.
Jeff Malloy of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association says the marketplace cannot bear the prices being sought by fishermen and that the value slumped because too many lobsters were being caught.
“Right now, the marketplace is telling us the shore price shouldn’t be any higher than what we’ve offered, so there’s certainly an impasse,” Malloy said.
“Over the last number of years, there’s been a huge shift in the quantity being landed.”
He said the volume of lobster landed in the region rose from 150 million pounds in 2006 to 300 million pounds last year. The federal Fisheries Department valued lobster exports at about $1 billion in 2011.
But the industry is in desperate need of revision, say some who have seen Maine landings go up, demand for Canadian lobster fall as the dollar hits par and tensions rise between processors and fishermen, who sometimes don’t know what price they’ll get until well into the season.
“It’s a dysfunctional system,” said MacPherson. “Historically, there hasn’t been a lot of dialogue and trust between the two groups and I think we’re probably seeing the industry at its worst right now.
“Obviously, for fishermen and processors to stay viable that model has to be changed and fixed.”
Malloy agreed, saying the two sides need to keep talking because all sides are being hurt by the latest dispute in an industry that has been stung by slumping prices and uncertainty in recent years.
He said hundreds of people at his processing plant in P.E.I. aren’t working because product is not coming in, dealing a double blow to some families who work on the water and in the plants.
“This makes it difficult for everyone,” he said. “When there’s no lobsters, there’s no work.”
Fishermen in Nova Scotia stayed on land Friday as well, with about 1,000 boats from the Northumberland Strait, Gulf of St. Lawrence coast and Eastern Shore tied up because of prices that have dropped to $3.75 per pound.
Peter Dowd of the Gulf Nova Scotia Bonafide Fishermen’s Association said fishermen need to be invited to the table to discuss how they can secure a fair price.
He says people in some parts of Nova Scotia were hearing that the price would be as high as $6 a pound early in the season and then dropped to about $3.
“The protest is about how is it possible that the market has changed so drastically,” he said from Antigonish, where fishermen met again to discuss the way forward.
“It doesn’t make sense that to most of the fishermen how the market could fluctuate so much.”