Elton Warner believes his days as a lobster fisherman are numbered. He’s owned his rig, the Minnow, for four years and has been fishing lobster for about 13 off southwest Nova Scotia.
This year, however, is “probably going to be my last, or maybe another year.” He just can’t make any money, and he’s not alone.
Mr. Warner fishes in the area around Yarmouth that opened, along with another one on the same coast, on Nov. 27 for its six-month season. Together they are the two largest fishing areas in Atlantic Canada, and they are victims of their own success – so much so that there are now calls to close the fishery as lobster prices are at historic lows. The hauls in the first week were described as “astronomical” – 8,000 to 12,000 pounds a day, compared with between 3,000 and 4,000 in other years.
This, combined with frozen inventory from huge hauls in Prince Edward Island during its season – 27 million pounds, six million more than last year – have flooded the market. In addition, lobster is fished year-round in Maine, and there is a small fishery operating now in the Bay of Fundy.
Packing plants, meanwhile, have been working 24 hours a day trying to deal with the catches that are up 25 to 35 per cent from last year, says Marc Surette, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association.
This glut, combined with the economic downturn in Europe and the United States and fewer people buying lobster, is driving down the price to $3 a pound. There are fears it could go as low as $2. Even buyers became so twitchy last weekend that prices would tumble that they wanted the Department of Fisheries to shut the fishery, Mr. Surette said. But DFO doesn’t have that mandate.
“It’s been overwhelming,” said Mr. Surette, who believes that the catches are now beginning to stabilize. “We weren’t expecting it. Instead we got bombarded and caught with our pants down.”
Warmer temperatures mean the lobsters are on the move, crawling toward colder water and into traps. The crustaceans have fewer natural predators because grey seals are eating the ground fish that used to eat the lobster larvae.
“They are just having a great old time,” said Geoff Irvine, head of the Lobster Council of Canada. “They are breeding like mad and we are getting really good at catching them.”
The consequences are that, for the past four years, the multimillion-dollar industry has been struggling. Fishermen, who have seen the cost of fuel, bait and insurance increase, and still have boat payments, can’t break even.
Stepping into the fray is James Mood, head of 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermen Association. His grassroots group, formed this year, is named for the 1,688 lobster licences in the areas that opened last week.
“We want you fellows to shut this industry down,” Mr. Mood urged captains, including Mr. Warner and a smattering of others, who met Wednesday on the wharf in Yarmouth. The skies were grey and threatening rain as Mr. Mood used a microphone to talk over the howling wind. “You fellows have done this to yourselves. There is only one way you can stop it – shut it down.”
Mr. Mood wants the fishery closed so that he and his team can negotiate a better price – $5 a pound. “You fellows … more or less come in and throw your lobsters at the dealers and say, ‘Pay me what you can,’” Mr. Mood told the fishermen. “You are getting what you deserve. It’s a mess and you fishermen have started it.” He believes striking now, as the busy Christmas and New Year’s market approaches, would push up the price.
Last year, fishermen in the two areas caught an average 32,000 pounds and got an average price of $4.04 a pound, or about $129,000. A crewman gets around 12.5 per cent of the catch, said Mr. Mood – or about $15,000. “This is pathetic,” he said. “How do you expect your crew member to go fishing with you?”
Mr. Mood did not draw much of a crowd on the wharf nor at a subsequent meeting at the arena in nearby Barrington. Lobster fishermen seem to know what they need to do – unite. But they can’t get it together.
Last September, an attempt was made to manage the fishery in the area with a proposal to lay 75 fewer traps for the first three months of the season, or delay the opening of the season. It was overwhelmingly rejected.
“We should never have set the pots for $3 or $3.25,” said Craig Smith, a captain. “If we had waited until Dec. 10 we probably would have had our $5.”
He describes his life now as getting up in the morning, beating his head against the wall, and doing it all over again the next day. But he still went out when the season opened and laid his traps, figuring that if others go out, he should too.
“Nobody,” said crewman John O’Connell, “will stick together.”