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'We’re breaking new ground here, but we believe this might be in the best interest of the fishery on the whole,' said Vincent Boutilier, seen here on March 11, 2020, a lobsterman who represents fishers in region immediately west of Halifax.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia’s billion-dollar lobster industry is considering a complete halt to fishing for several weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to close markets for Canadian seafood.

The move would be unprecedented, and not all lobster harvesters agree their boats should come off the water, but many believe something drastic needs to be done as demand falls and prices collapse. The proposed shutdown would affect the two Nova Scotia fishing zones where the lobster harvest is active right now, which are also the most productive lobster grounds in Atlantic Canada.

“We’re breaking new ground here, but we believe this might be in the best interest of the fishery on the whole,” said Vincent Boutilier, a lobsterman who represents fishers in region immediately west of Halifax.

“It’s unprecedented. Most guys seem to get that for the good of the industry, we need to take a break. Everything is going to be completely plugged up. Nothing is moving right now.”

Many of his fellow fishers support a three-week shutdown in the harvest, he said. They’ve watched the “shore price” for lobster – what wholesale buyers pay for their catch – drop from $11 a pound a few months ago to less than $7 a pound. Demand is expected to continue to decline because of shrinking appetite from Asian, European and U.S. markets and an inability to deliver shipments in some cases.

Other fishing groups, such as the Scotia Fundy Inshore Fisherman’s Association, have expressed concern about a potential halt to the fishery. Some smaller lobster buyers who have less of the shellfish in storage have also argued shutting down the industry is not the answer.

The problem is the market can’t move a fraction of the lobster being caught, Mr. Boutilier said. In January, as many as eight cargo flights full of live lobster were leaving Halifax each week bound for Asian markets. Those shipments, along with exports to Europe and the United States, have slowed to a trickle since the outbreak.

Nova Scotia sent its first cargo plane in nearly a month to mainland China last week, in an effort to reopen that crucial trade route. The shipment of almost 70 tonnes of live lobster was considered a test flight to gauge China’s ability to move the crustacean as the country slowly begins to recover.

Until the global slowdown in imports, China was one of the biggest buyers in the world for Canadian lobster. Europe, where borders are being closed and millions are staying home, has dramatically cut back on its orders. In the U.S., with its own domestic lobster already flooding the market, prices are also falling quickly as chains such as Red Lobster encourage customers to switch to take-away meals.

“We’ve been worried for weeks now about China, but now it’s in Europe and the U.S.,” said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

“We’ve been through problems before, from 9/11 to SARS, but this is a big one. We have to find a way through it.”

The Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance, which represents buyers and processors, says it may need the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to issue an order to shut down harvesting. That’s the only way to ensure all fishers abide by the shutdown, said Leo Muise, executive director of the industry association.

The proposed pause to all fishing is just one option, he said, but it might be necessary to stop the flow of lobster into the market.

“The reality is there are more lobster being harvested than the market can take. This is just about supply and demand. Inventories are starting to build,” Mr. Muise said. “This is a very unique circumstance. The whole world has been turned upside down by this. We’ve never been faced with this before.”

The seafood industry has been through difficult downturns in the past, including the 2007-08 financial crisis, when the price of lobster collapsed to $3.50 a pound, but it’s never seen a situation where buyers simply stop making orders because restaurants are empty and trade routes are closed.

Jane Deeks, press secretary for federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, said Ottawa has not been formally asked yet to intervene in the lobster situation, but is watching it closely.

“We know that many industries, including our fisheries, are facing a serious decline in exports. We have been and will continue to monitor this situation closely,” she said in a statement.

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