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Darryll Buote urinates off the back of his boat while heading out to sea Wednesday, May 1, 2013.NATHAN ROCHFORD

Maritime lobster fishermen are tying up their boats, protesting prices they say are so low they can no longer afford to fish. While prices are a constant flashpoint, this year a 'stunning' development and a new stamp of sustainability are complicating matters. Here are three challenges fishermen are grappling with this season:

Prices and protest

"This is huge," says Colin Runighan, a 37-year-old lobster fisherman from Launching Pond, PEI, about the strike that started in PEI earlier this week and spread to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. "Fishermen are being taken advantage of and people are getting rich off of our backs."

Mr. Runighan, a fisherman of 11 years, has never seen prices so low – processors are offering around $3 per pound for lobster and fishermen say they need at least $5 to survive.

In other areas, such as Maine, Newfoundland and Quebec, lobster fishermen are getting higher prices, between $4.50 and $5, according to the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association.

With higher fuel prices, increased costs for bait, insurance and crew payments, Mr. Runighan says he's saving money by tying up his boat.

"I'd be $10,000 in the hole at the end of the season. I could go pick bottles out of the ditch and I still wouldn't be $10,000 in the hole."

The spring fishery opened on April 29 and runs until the end of June. Mr. Runighan warns he may sacrifice the season and says he is not alone.

But the processors aren't budging.

"Could we put the price up to end this? Right now, unless the marketplace changes, no we can't," says Jeff Malloy, the CEO of Acadian Fishermen's Co-operative Association, a lobster processor in PEI.

He cites huge catches in North America for the lower prices – 150 million pounds in 2006 and 300 million by 2012.

A low U.S. dollar has also contributed to pressure on the industry, as has the recession – lobster is considered a luxury food.

As for price discrepancies, Mr. Malloy says lobsters going to live markets are fetching higher prices; most of the lobster caught now in PEI is for processing.

Mr. Malloy's plant employs about 200 people and has an annual payroll of more than $3-million. With the strike on, he has had to close his plant – a big blow to a small community.

A shellfish stunner

European consumers have developed a taste for humanely treated lobsters – some German retailers have even stopped selling lobster after lobbying by concerned groups. In response, earlier this year, a New Brunswick processor hoping to reach into European markets purchased a "CMP humane shellfish stunner" from Charlottetown Metal Products. This was CMP's first sale in North America, says CMP's Trevor Spinney, adding it has sold five stunners in Britain and Ireland.

This machine has two large conveyer belts that carry 1,000 kilograms of lobster an hour to a water bath and electrodes that incapacitate the crustacean so that they won't feel any pain before being cooked in boiling water. The technology was adapted from the "CrustaStun," a smaller machine used in Europe that stuns one crab or lobster at a time. Lobster veterinarian Jean Lavallée says no one will ever be able to prove conclusively if lobsters feel pain when they are boiled alive. "So therefore, it is our obligation to treat lobsters with as much respect as possible," he says.

The treatment of the crustaceans is a big file for the Lobster Council of Canada. "The stunning machine is a good step," says president Geoff Irvine, noting the situation in Germany. His council has prepared a handbook explaining how Canadian lobsters are handled for the export market.

A greener lobster

Maine lobster was designated a sustainable fishery in March by the Marine Stewardship Council – the gold seal in terms of certification. It means the fishery meets international environmental standards including the health of the lobster stock, good management practices and protection of the ecosystem.

Achieving the certification is a costly – about $100,000. But it could give Maine lobster, which is Canada's biggest competition, a price edge. Lobster fisheries here are trying for the same certification – a process that takes about 16 months. Marc Surette, of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association, says the certification is a marketing tool that retailers like.