By Laura Button
FOR THE SOU’WESTER
It's a common refrain that high fuel prices are wreaking havoc on personal and commercial bank accounts, but the crab fishery is between a rock and a hard place. "It's a double-whammy," said Earl McCurdy.
The president of the Fish, Food, and Allied Workers union says the increased fuel price is driving the dollar up and crab prices down. The high price of fuel also translates into bigger expenses, thus smaller profits, for fishermen.
Fuel costs are up, and the price of crab dropped by 11 cents on May 2. That prompted some union members to tie up their boats and urge the union to fight for better prices. "The tie-up has brought this thing to a head," said McCurdy "A large number of boats are tied up because the status-quo is not acceptable to them.
Chair Joe O'Neil, Max Short and Bill Wells make up the panel that adjusts crab prices every two weeks. "The panel decision is binding, however there is that possibility of a reconsideration, and that's what we've broached with them," said McCurdy.
Right now, the price for raw crab is $1.50 per pound. "We think it needs to be firmed up with a price that will have some staying power to it for the year. We approached the processors, but so far they weren't prepared to do that."
McCurdy said fishermen are not only looking for a better price, but a better pricing system. The current two-week cycle, he says, lets buyers buy hand-to-mouth in hopes the price will drop in the next reporting period.
The FFAW called a meeting with the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture, harvesters and processors to talk about some of the roadblocks to a worthwhile crab season.
At the Marine Centre in Bonavista in late April/early May, crews were busy getting their boats ready for fishing. Now that the ice had moved off, fishermen were looking forward to getting on the water.
Skipper Wayne Green said his expenses keep going up while the price for crab has dropped. "I don't want to see it go any lower than that," he says of the $1.50 pound."I can't fish and go in the hole."
His 45-foot Bonavista Bound has a crew of four besides himself. He planned to put his boat in the water in a couple of weeks to get a start on his 108,000-pound quota.
Fuel, insurance, and maintenance all eat into his profits.
Green is optimistic the crab will make for a good season's fishing. "It's only the first part of the year yet," he said.
But Glen Winslow, a St. John's fisherman, said if things get any worse, he won't be able to justify taking his boat out at all. "The profit margin is not there for you to go out and not be able to fish as soon as you get out there," he said. "You can't afford to go out there and put your boat in gear and jog around."
Winslow said on the same day that gas prices went up, fishermen heard that crab prices would be going down. Now, that's squeezing him out of a living. "To catch our crab is somewhere in the vicinity of 300 miles (out to sea) which, depending on the weather, is probably 40 hours," he said. "That's $4,000 just to get out there, and $4,000 just to get back before you even make any money."
He said if people fishing crab don't catch their full quota in an area and have to go back to port, they can't afford to go back out and get the rest of it.
McCurdy said the situation is ironic, considering for the first time ever the government of Newfoundland is wealthy, talking about becoming a have province and with money flowing in “hand over fist.” "The very same phenomenon that's causing that unprecedented revenue flow is also sinking rural Newfoundland," said McCurdy.
He hoped the province will use its oil revenues to help sectors that are being hit hard by the high cost of fuel. (Laura Button is a journalist with Transcontinental Media’s Packet newspaper, which is a contributor to the Sou’Wester. This story also has files from the Telegram.)
By Laura Button