Lobster fishers tie up for higher prices
By Lois Ann Dort
GUYSBOROUGH – Fishing boats are on the water this week after spending the Mother's Day weekend tied up in protest. Falling lobster prices across the Maritimes, on Prince Edward Island in particular, were the impetus behind this unprecedented action. After a meeting with Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau on Monday evening in Antigonish, where the minister told a large gathering of fishers that the province would work on a solution to remedy the low lobster prices, fishers voted to end the protest.
The Journal spoke to Virginia Boudreau, manager of the Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen's Association and Fred Greene, proprietor of Fisherman's Market International, a lobster buyer throughout Nova Scotia, about the tie-up and the current pricing controversy.
“Our commitment here from the Guysborough County Inshore was to tie up on Friday and not fish,” said Boudreau. “And to coordinate and participate in the rally in Antigonish on Friday; which we did. After that we had commitment and direction from the Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen, that anybody who could hold, that is not sell their catch over the weekend, not sell...That was the commitment and the direction that we had from the fishermen here in the Guysborough County Inshore Fishermen's Association. I do believe that the rest of LFA (lobster fishing area) 31 B and 32 had a similar commitment to support the Gulf and Prince Edward Island fleets...We were not on the water Monday but that was due to weather.”
“The tie up began in P.E.I and it was due to low prices for their market and canner lobsters. They were down to $2.75 and $3.35; really they can't run their businesses at that price," said Boudreau. "They would be losing to much with the cost of bait and fuel. It's impossible to make money, to pay your bills let alone make money, at those prices, so that fleet tied-up...Then the Gulf of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick supported them cause their price went down as well. We on Eastern Shore and Cape Breton...we got in on the tie-up to support those fleets and our price has dropped as well. We were down to $4.50 which is a pretty good price compared to what the other areas were getting but we have absolutely no catch. Water temperatures are extremely cold; catches were very low, we missed a lot of days to weather; so there was no inventory and the price kept dropping and dropping. We were very concerned about that. It's supposed to be supply and demand, although there are other factors, we have not heard an explanation for the drop in prices....Supply and demand has explained the price in other years but this year it does not seem to factor in at all.
“We were told that the processors were afraid that there would be a big glut come on this year as it did last year and that did not happen. We are well beyond half way through our season here. Sou'West Nova is nearly done their season; there was no glut. We don't even have time for a glut so that doesn't explain it. We have heard that there was inventory left over from last year but that inventory should be gone by now cause no one has landed anything for the last two months. They've had an ample opportunity to get rid of any glut they had from last year and the prices are still dropping. We went down to $4.25 yesterday with nobody even on the water.
“The lobster industry in Atlantic Canada was pretty much shut down. That has never happened before and should be an indication to the public and to our politicians and to the processing sector that this is serious. We are not just complaining for the sake of complaining and we are not being greedy. There is a serious issue here and it is definitely not that the market has been flooded with lobsters cause we have not landed any. Last year that was an explanation but this year it doesn't wash.
“We support our local buyers- we don't see that our local buyers are setting this price. It's the next level up. But we do need our local buyers to step up and say that they see an issue with the prices as well. We would really like to see them weigh in on this conversation we think they have something to contribute as well...What is influencing them and setting the price?” asked Boudreau.
Fred Greene, of Fisherman's Market International, spoke to The Journal on Tuesday morning. “We are buying at $4.50 in the Canso area – but processors won't pay it,” he said explaining that although they sell live market lobsters they also sell to processors. As much as 50 percent of the lobster the company buys in Canso ends up at third-party processors. Currently, selling to processors would be selling at a loss and the company is accumulating lobsters. “We shipped a lot through Mother's Day but when it accumulates there is no demand for it.”
“The lobster business is a complicated operation,” continued Greene. “Lobsters that we buy we would move to canneries just to get rid of the volume. There are 26 canneries in the eastern Atlantic area. There is a tremendous influx of lobster...Supply and demand determines the price. Right now they are buying lobster for $3.50 in P.E.I at those canneries. The price on the Eastern Shore was $4.50, we got a lot of $4.50 lobsters still on hand, but now we're buying at $4.25 and we're selling them off the mark. If we were buying them at $3.50 we could sell them for $4. It cost us .35 cents for collection fees to run our Canso operation and Dover. We have a price on freight and we have .10 cents return. That's how tight it is,” said Greene.
“I've studied this thing and I've been in the industry for 53 years,” Greene told The Journal. “This time of year is very tough because all these seasons are opening up and all this stuff going on and Western Nova Scotia is still open although they are not producing that many right now because the water temperatures have been cold.
“Off the Canso area, which I feel really tough about, because that's one of our best buys—Canso/Dover, water temperature has been really cold... they have a bottom temperature reading that is just incredible; one to two degrees Celsius. I know...when the temperature gets down...lobsters hardly move, most borrow in and stay in the bottom. You put a trap in-- they are not interested. We have done a lot of experimentation with lobster and that's been the biggest problem in Canso, the water temperature was up for a few days then down for a few days. Every time the water temperature goes up and you get some decent weather you get a fair catch in Canso but that has only been a few days in Canso so far this season...This bad weather...so much wind and so much sea...it must be terribly hard on the fishermen.”
“We bought, so far off the Eastern Shore, over 300,000 pounds of lobster which is way down from last year cause most of them come early and we have probably 150,000 pounds on hand at the higher prices and we have no market for them. We are going to have to peddle off at a loss as we go.
“We are still shipping lobsters, we have regular customers in Europe and some in the far east, we ship some lobsters every week but not in these quantities. The processor takes the surplus; that's the idea. Our retail store takes about two percent of our lobsters. We have restaurants and stores that buy from us all over the Maritimes. We are a seafood distributor and a fairly large one in Atlantic Canada but they only take a small quantity of lobsters in comparison to what is being landed. The surplus of all this has to go somewhere and it has to go to a market where it hopefully will bring a return on a lobster; not just dump it out. These people know what they are getting for lobster tails and lobster meat and different byproducts they make and it's not working for them. They can't get it on return therefore they can't pay the price.
“I have great empathy for the fishers themselves who, in our area, have new engines, new boats; who are just getting into the fishery and the first couple of weeks of the fishery, I know they have not made a return and they are going to have to make payments which makes it rough. That is not really a problem with price alone. If the weather had been good the problem would not have been nearly so severe. Even at lower prices at least the volume of lobsters would have made their payments,” said Greene.
In the coming weeks fishers will hope for warmer water and better weather as well as a clearer understanding of market forces which dictate the price of the harvest they take from the sea.