Fearing what the lobster future holds

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MONTAGUE, P.E.I. – Selling from the back of pickup trucks or building cages to store them live at sea could be the scenario for lobster fishermen this spring in the wake of fears that processors won’t be buying the catch.

And with a dismal shore price of $3.25 a pound anticipated and some processors citing inventory gluts and being denied extended lines of credit, those who catch one of the most sought after foods of the sea might just stay home.

It may be a worst case scenario, but a federal Standing Committee on the Fisheries was told on March 31 it is not impossible. The 14-member committee was surprised at the turnout of fishermen that packed the Kaylee Hall for the full day session. “Financing has become a real problem and the banks say they are not interested in the fishery,” said 35-year industry veteran Mark Bonnell of Mariner Seafoods. “I can’t see a big price and I don’t see many orders.”

The possible crisis - just 30 days away from the spring lobster season expected to begin May 1 - prompted numerous submissions requesting the committee stop banks from cutting the industry loose. “We need credit to ensure the fishermen and the processors don’t have to sell at a fire sale price,” said Craig Avery of the Western Gulf Fishermen’s Association. “And that’s why I’ve had lots of inquiries about peddler’s licences.”

Alberta MP Blaine Calkin suggested the standing committee, consisting of MPs from across the country, make every effort to request the testimony of bank officials regarding the credit crunch to the fishery. It may not help with this year’s fishery, but Calkin said an industry can’t be left out to dry.

The good news is that fuel prices are down and the exchange rate of the Canadian dollar is better. However, the economic recession has the big American market reaching for cheap baloney rather than higher priced lobster.

Fishermen earned $4 a pound last year and that could shrink to $3.25 this year. A recent report estimated fishermen needed $2.95 a pound just to break even. “The door is going to shut for many trying to fish if this keeps up,” said Montague area fisherman Keith Vuozzo.

Linus Bungay of Ocean Choice Inc. told the committee he anticipated a price decrease on lobster by 20 to 25 per cent this year. He also expected a labour shortfall at the Souris-based plant and said the operation has looked for employees as far as Thailand.

Ed Frenette, of the P.E.I. Fisherman’s Association, said lack of credit or operating capital has fishermen discussing other options. “Guys will be hauling out water cages to the grounds and storing catches in the hope that prices eventually climb,” he said.

Bobby Jenkins, of the Southern Kings and Queens Fishermen’s Association, said some fishermen are “on the verge of collapse” and told the committee P.E.I. lobsters should be certified to help command a more distinct brand and better price.

Tignish Co-op, which operates Royal Star Foods, installed a holding tank with a 500,000 pound capacity (it cost $1 million with no government funding) to ensure it can wait out a better price.

Organizations: Standing Committee on the Fisheries, Ocean Choice, Tignish Co Royal Star Foods

Geographic location: Western Gulf Fishermen, Thailand, P.E.I. Fisherman Queens Fishermen

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