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Why lobster size matters: PEI, New Brunswick argue over millimetres in market worth millions

Fishermen in PEI and New Brunswick are battling over the size of lobsters they can catch in the shared waters of the Northumberland Strait. Right now, fishermen there can catch lobsters whose carapace – the armour-like abdomen of the crustacean, minus its tail – is a minimum of 72 mm. PEI fishermen would like to keep the level at 72 mm; New Brunswick fisherman would like it raised to 73 mm and eventually higher. In this photo, the lobster on the left fits into the 72mm category while the one on the right fits into the 73mm category.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

It's a tiny difference – just one millimetre or about 1/25th of an inch – but it is prompting a large battle between PEI and New Brunswick fishermen over the size of the lobster they can catch in the shared waters of the Northumberland Strait.

Right now, fishermen there can catch lobsters whose carapace – the armour-like abdomen of the crustacean, minus its tail – is a minimum of 72 mm.

PEI fishermen, who have built a market exporting smaller lobsters to Europe and Asia, want that minimum to stay where it is.

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New Brunswick, on the other hand, hopes the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans will raise that minimum to 73 mm, and keep increasing it until it reaches 77 mm. Fishermen there argue that for their market, bigger is better. Last year, for example, Red Lobster announced it would not buy lobster tails under four ounces. To be competitive, New Brunswick fishermen argue, they need to have access to larger lobsters – and they fear that PEI will catch the smaller ones before they have a chance to grow.

There is a lot at stake financially for both provinces, and lobster size has become a political battle – with fisheries ministers on both sides saying they won't back down from their positions.

PEI Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley says his New Brunswick counterpart is in for one "h" of a fight if he tries to push for a further increase. And New Brunswick intends to do just that – pushing for a higher minimum for 2014.

In Moncton on Wednesday, fishermen and fisheries officials will gather to thrash out the issue and the meeting is expected to be tense. "It will be debated to its max," promises Christian Brun, the executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union in New Brunswick.

Lobster sizes

The federal DFO sets minimum legal sizes to sustain the size of the lobster fishery and fines fishermen caught with smaller lobsters on their boats. This year's minimum size for lobster in the Northumberland Strait is 72 mm.

Smaller lobsters, like the ones PEI wants to catch, are called "canners."

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Canners weigh between 250 and 375 grams and get their name because in the past they were used for canning. The smaller lobsters are unique to the Northumberland Strait, where the warmer temperatures cause the lobsters to mature more quickly. When they reach 72 mm, the lobsters are fully mature, just smaller than lobsters caught in other parts of the Atlantic.

In other regions, like the lobster-fishing area along the west coast of Cape Breton, the minimum legal carapace size is 81 mm. The waters are colder and it takes longer for the lobsters to mature – when they do, they are much bigger.

"Market" lobsters have carapaces of about 81 mm and weigh more than a pound. They are used in a lot of restaurants – and are exported live to the United States.

The markets

PEI's 1,200 lobster fishermen export most of their smaller "canner" lobsters to Europe and Asia, and to cruise ships and casinos for their buffets. The province's fishermen landed 27 million pounds of lobster last year, of which 57 per cent were canners. In the past five years, canners have brought in an average of $54.2-million each year.

"Our processers are having success in the 71- and 72-mm range," says Ian MacPherson, the executive director of the PEI Fishermen's Association. "Above that, the demand decreases. I know we are talking millimetres but the market is consumer-driven."

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For New Brunswick, it's the opposite story. Catching and processing larger lobsters would help to make New Brunswick more competitive, especially because of recent changes in demand, says Mr. Brun of the Maritime Fishermen's Union. Take Red Lobster's requirement for lobster tails of over four ounces: A 72-mm lobster, Mr. Brun says, produces a tail of only two to three ounces.

New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Mike Olscamp says the province's canner lobster market is in decline. "Although we still have markets for [canners], they're more of a niche market product and so that is what is putting pressure on our processing industry to retool and look at larger-size lobster," he says. "The size becomes an issue."

The fight

New Brunswick wants the sizes increased further; PEI does not. Adding to this tension is the glut in the market caused by an overabundance of lobster, which is forcing prices to historic lows and prompted protests last summer at processing plants in New Brunswick. Some fishermen packed up their gear early this year because it was not worth it for them to continue fishing with prices at 20-year lows and in some places as low as $3 a pound; a processing plant in Cape Breton dumped thousands of pounds of lobster.

In New Brunswick, lobsters are still the biggest cash crop, with the province exporting $455-million worth of lobster products a year, 44 per cent of the Canadian total.

For PEI, the lobster fishery is the province's second most important industry after farming, says Mike McGeoghegan, president of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association.

PEI Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley is ready for battle over lobster size. "I don't get upset," he says. "I played hockey years ago and I can fight and smile at the same time. I used to grin when I was fist fighting."

New Brunswick Fisheries Minister Mike Olscamp says he doesn't want a "shouting match" with his colleague: "We have enough problems in the lobster industry to go to war with a neighbour."

But, if it comes down to a battle, he's picked sides. New Brunswick fishermen expect to meet soon with the federal minister, Keith Ashfield, a New Brunswicker, and will push for a larger minimum for 2014.

Mr. MacKinley received unanimous consent from the 27-member PEI Legislature for a motion urging the federal minister to "support the Prince Edward Island position of no changes to carapace size beyond the agreed-upon 72 mm mark." He sent the motion to Ottawa but has not heard back.

He is also hoping to rename canners, saying the name has a negative connotation. He'd prefer something like "Skippers' Choice."

What about taste?

For Renée Lavallée, a veteran freelance chef, the smaller, canner lobsters have always been her favourite for cooking and serving. "I do love the canners. I do," says the former chef at Halifax's Five Fishermen. "The smaller lobster to me has always been the sweeter lobster."

The market lobsters usually found on restaurant menus are about 1.25 pounds or larger. Their larger size means they are older, which Ms. Lavallée says means they take longer to cook. She also thinks they are less flavourful.

"Would you eat a chubby baby or would you eat a stringy older person?" she asks. "I would rather eat a chubby baby myself. That's the way I feel about lobster, too."

But for many consumers, especially those in the United States, bigger is better. And with a little butter, the larger lobster is juicy and packed with flavour.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More


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