They ran out of lobster at the Lobster Summit opening night dinner, which left some summiteers grumbling, but they managed to come together at the end on a plan to promote the Canadian crustacean abroad.
About 200 fishermen, processors, industry officials and politicians from the three Maritime provinces agreed at the two-day summit to introduce a two-cent levy – one cent from harvesters and one cent from processors – for each pound of lobster landed. The money – about $2.5-million annually – will go mostly towards marketing Canadian lobster as a premium product in North America, Europe and Asia.
"Marketing works. The levy is a good idea," Michael McGeoghegan said. However, the veteran lobster fisherman from Prince Edward Island, who missed dining on lobster but managed to scrounge up a bacon-wrapped scallop, has concerns about how the levy will be administered.
"We don't [want] to create a white elephant bureaucracy. We got sharks in the room here and they can smell money already," said the fisherman, pointing to some of the summit participants. "... So how do we keep it … grass roots but yet very effective [so] that we can market the brand all over the world and be successful at it?
Mr. McGeoghegan admitted a levy will be passed on to customers. "The consumer always ends up paying," he said. "It ends up on their doorstep."
The hope is that better marketing – advertising that explains the health benefits of Canadian lobster (it is lower in calories and fat than a chicken breast) and offers new ways to serve it, will help mitigate a cost increase. The group also wants a brand symbol to differentiate it from other lobster.
The Canadian Lobster Value Recovery Summit, led by the Lobster Council of Canada and attended by all three Maritime fisheries ministers, was aimed, in part, at bringing together industry players who have not always got along. Working co-operatively, many believe, would help them find a way to get higher prices and protect Canadian lobster from Maine lobster, which is gaining ground. Maine has a similar levy. The aim is to have the Canadian version in place by early next year, but details are still to be worked out.
In 2012, the fishery's total landed value was $664.2-million. But prices have fallen recently. Last year, some fishermen tied up their boats, protesting they could not afford to fish.
Nearly four years ago, the 119 fishermen in the Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen's Association – they work the northern tip of Nova Scotia's eastern shore – voted for a levy. They have been waiting ever since for others to agree.
"Marketing, marketing, marketing," said Eugene O'Leary, the lobster fisherman who is president of the association.
"Nike don't pay Tiger Woods $50-million to wear a check mark if it doesn't work. It just works."
He said Atlantic lobster is searching for an identity – people around the world do not recognize PEI or Nova Scotia lobster, but they know Canada.
"So if you market it as a Canadian lobster, you are so far ahead of the game," he said.
The industry also hopes that marketing the lobster more widely will help end the practice of selling it more cheaply when supply goes up.
"Our biggest problem has been to date that the volume of product has grown from 150 million to 330 million pounds and we haven't expanded," said Jerry Amirault, who represents lobster processors in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. "So … it shows up in McDonald's restaurants or it shows up in Wal-Mart. We're equivalent to Mercedes to champagne to diamonds. We need the middle-class markets."
He noted that trade agreements with Korea and the European Union will help raise the economic value of lobster. "It's a billion-dollar business. It should be a $5-billion business," he said.
The three governments in the Maritimes say they are ready to move on the levy.
"If you go into the marketplace and sell your products as a premium product, not just something that you are getting rid of, it attracts a higher price," Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell said.
"… If you use a triple A steak, you know exactly what you're getting. If you buy a lobster, you have no idea what you are getting now. So we need to tie quality into marketing and put it all together as a package and instead of getting $5 or $6 a pound for a lobster in a market … we can probably get $25 a pound."