More promotion of lobster needed says newly formed committee

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EI qualifications, easing of bank loan repayments other issues and challenges

By Tina Comeau

THE SOU'WESTER

NovaNewsNow.com

A committee that has come together in southwestern Nova Scotia for the betterment of the lobster industry says promotion of the product is needed and this needs to be a collaborative effort involving fishermen, businesses, government and the community. “Who here thinks that lobster is being promoted?” asked Wanda Atkinson, a businesswoman from Cape Sable Island, one of the organizers of a meeting held at the Yarmouth Wesleyan Church on Thursday, Jan. 29.

No one in the room raised their hand. “We would like to see promotion, we would like to see advertising, we would like to see campaigns. We’ve got to look and see if there aren’t some opportunities here so we can build the industry bigger and stronger,” she said. “Our lobsters aren’t advertised they aren’t marketing. The only time you ever see any advertisement that includes lobster is Red Lobster and what do they advertise? Shrimp.”

Atkinson admits advertising won’t erase the economic crisis that is gripping Canada, the United States and other parts of the world. But it could help cushion the blow locally if more awareness translates into more demand for the product.

Because of the low prices paid to fishermen in the opening weeks of the season – when it is a make or break time in their livelihoods – there are concerns about how the situation has impacted captains, and in particular, crewmembers. Aside from those struggling with low wages and high debts, because some crewmembers have been laid off there is concern they won’t have enough hours to draw employment insurance when the season closes and they don’t have other fishing to fall back on. The requirement is 595 hours to qualify.

Many had been hoping for relief in EI qualifications in the federal budget that was just tabled, but that didn’t happen. For the hours needed to qualify to decrease, people were told at the meeting that the unemployment rate has to go up. But even a rate hovering between 9.1 and 10 per cent would only shave off 35 hours. Warden Jim Thurber of Digby County pointed out it is problematic because people who don’t qualify for EI benefits aren’t calculated in the unemployment rate.

The province’s Liberal fisheries critic Harold Jr. Theriault, the MLA for Digby-Annapolis, voiced his concern with the lack of attention given to the fishing industry in the federal budget. “We’ve got people in the industry, both young and old, facing a heavy debt load during this hard economic climate,” he said, saying he needs to look no further for evidence of this than to his own sons who are in the fishery. Theriault said people who got into the industry years back are still burdened by what he calls artificially inflated entry prices that came about after 1999.

The Jan. 29 meeting opened with a presentation from the local Community Business Development Corporation about loan programs that are available for fishermen who may want to pursue other small business opportunities during the off season, or who are looking to get out of the fishery. A presentation from the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce referred to the support the chamber can offer to the industry and cargo opportunities that will arrive with the start of scheduled air service operating out of the Yarmouth airport. Representatives from Service Canada spoke about EI programs, training and benefits.

The organizers of the meeting also invited local businesses to talk about the impact they feel when troubles hit the lobster fishery. Mike Mercier, the new owner of the Canadian Tire in Yarmouth, said there is little doubt that when the industry hurts, so do businesses in the community. Having just recently moved here from Saskatchewan, he said in early December when fishermen tied up their boats that made the news out west. “I know some friends that did go out into restaurants and buy lobster,” he said, adding any new promotion of the lobster product can only help.

The committee, which this week will hold another meeting at the fisheries museum in Lunenburg, has launched a site called I Love Lobster on the social networking site Facebook. They intend to capitalize on some municipal units in Shelburne County having declared 2009 the Year of the Lobster.

Carol Spinney, the wife of a lobster fisherman and an organizer of the meeting, will be making a presentation to the Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce seeking its help is lobbying banks to offer pardons for fishermen who are struggling to make payments.

Those at the meeting were encouraged to write letters, and to have others do the same, to politicians at all levels of government to stress the importance of the industry and highlight changes that are needed, like to EI programs, to provide short term assistance for the industry. “We’re looking to make change. We’re trying to put out sustainable, achievable and sensible goals,” said Spinney, who admits it often can be an uphill battle. “You do have a lot of stereotyping that happens. Some fishermen have nice trucks and nice homes. People who are not directly involved in fishing, they judge because they see these nice big trucks and homes so they think right away that these people have a lot of money. Well even if that’s the case, I say good for them because they worked hard for their money, it’s long hours and it’s a hard job on the water,” Spinney said. “But for those of us, as middle average individuals, we don’t live on high society, we work and we try to have a comfortable way of living and it’s unfortunate what’s happened to us.”

While the committee is still looking for volunteers to help it push for and create short and long-term solutions and opportunities for the industry, it is also seeking ideas from the public on ways to promote the lobster. One suggestion from the floor was to try and organize a lobster week to coincide with the end of the season in May. There were some suggestions on how to generate funding for a lobster promotion campaign.

Another suggestion came from Henry Surette, a fisherman from Pinkney’s Point, who said the industry should jump on the President Barack Obama bandwagon. The president is making his first foreign visit to Canada on Feb. 19 and a lot of attention will follow him. “Maybe we could send a box of lobsters for Obama and a box of crabs for the other guy,” said Surette. Once the initial laughter in the room subsided, some in the audience murmured, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”

Organizations: Yarmouth Wesleyan Church, Red Lobster, Yarmouth Chamber of Commerce Community Business Development Service Canada Canadian Tire

Geographic location: Canada, Southwestern Nova Scotia, Cape Sable Island United States Yarmouth Digby County Saskatchewan Lunenburg Shelburne County

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