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Dr. Jean Lavallee at a wharf near his home in Rice Point, Prince Edward Island on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. Photo by Nathan Rochford (NATHAN ROCHFORD)
Dr. Jean Lavallee at a wharf near his home in Rice Point, Prince Edward Island on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. Photo by Nathan Rochford (NATHAN ROCHFORD)

Lobster doctor on a mission to save an industry in trouble Add to ...

For nearly 20 years he’s been studying lobsters, and now Jean Lavallée is taking his knowledge on the road, teaching even the most experienced lobsterman how to handle the misunderstood crustacean.

He’s the lobster doctor and his two-hour seminars on the biology, physiology and, more important, the proper handling of these bottom-feeding creatures, are aimed at improving the practices of the troubled fishery.

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Apparently, it’s all in the hands.

Lobsters may look like “mini-tanks,” explains the Prince Edward Island veterinarian, giving the impression that “these guys are really, really strong and nothing can bring them down.” That’s not the case, however: They are as fragile as eggs – a brittle shell on the outside and squishy inside.

Handle with care, he preaches.

Dr. Lavallée’s lobster seminars are part of a broader strategy the industry is adopting as it attempts to revitalize its fishery.

This year saw prices at 20-year lows and some PEI fishermen tie up their boats early because they couldn’t afford to fish. Catches included weakened and dead lobsters, and one Cape Breton plant estimates it threw away 50,000 pounds of lobsters this season.

As bad as this year was, the industry has been in decline for some time, especially since the 2008 recession, which hit the billion-dollar export industry hard. That industry is the lifeblood of small coastal communities in the Atlantic provinces.

“We had a real triple whammy in the lobster world and we are still clawing out of it, so to speak,” says Geoff Irvine, the executive director of the three-year-old Lobster Council of Canada. “Our challenge is profitability.”

That triple whammy: While more lobster was caught, the Canadian dollar rose against the U.S. and the white-tablecloth market in the United States, where 75 per cent of our lobsters are exported, dried up.

“We used to be able to sell the product at $1.42 exchange ... and that business model, since 2008, has evaporated,” says Stewart Lamont, managing director of Tangier Lobster Co., which exports about three million pounds of live lobster a year. “Everything you hear about lobster has to be looked at within the prism of our at-par dollar … the seafood sector was built on a 30- to 50-per-cent exchange.”

Atlantic Canada is still considered the lobster superpower – last year it landed 130 million pounds of lobster compared to about 120 million pounds for its closest competitor, the United States.

But of late, Mr. Irvine says, “we have not been acting like it.”

This is where Dr. Lavallée comes in. Mr. Irvine’s council, which represents all sectors of the fishery, including processors, buyers, exporters and about 10,000 lobster harvesters, recently pledged to adopt improved quality standards and a grading and branding program for Canadian lobster. The goal is for Atlantic lobsters to be consistent in quality.

“From my perspective if we want to be able to help out the industry, and I mean … everybody in the chain of custody, we need to maintain the quality as high as possible for as long as possible,” Dr. Lavallée says.

He has already conducted 25 seminars in New Brunswick, where the initiative started with funding from the provincial government. It spilled over into Nova Scotia where, with about $40,000 of funding from the government and industry, he is leading 18 more sessions.

The seminars are aimed not only at fishermen but everyone in the so-called “custody chain,” from the buyer at the wharf to the processor and exporter.

Mahone Bay, N.S., lobster fisherman John Levy says “even the old lobstermen who thought they knew everything about lobstering said they were impressed” by the lobster doctor’s tips including, “one hand, one lobster; keep them out of the elements – no direct sun, rain and wind; never leave in stagnant water and minimize the temperature variations they are experience.”

“If we want to change the way we do things, the financial incentive has to be there,” Dr. Lavallée says. “But I think if everybody gets on board and we do try to put some best practices in place and we do try to change, even if it’s … one little thing on the way we handle lobsters, I think price is going to follow.”

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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