Massachusetts lobster buyer Spiros Tourkakis listens to the discussion during a meeting with lobster harvesters and lobster buyers on Oct. 2. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
By Tina Comeau
They knew they wouldn’t be able to save all that’s wrong in the lobster industry during a three-hour meeting, but at the conclusion of their discussions industry stakeholders on the harvesting and buying sides resolved last week to work and communicate better with each other as the season approaches.
And that is saying a lot in an industry that is known for being disorganized on both the harvesting and the buying sides.
Members of the executives of the LFA 34 Management Board and the 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermens Association, along with some lobster buyers and a representative from the Nova Scotia Fishpackers Association, met in a boardroom of the Grand Hotel on Oct. 2 to discuss issues that are plaguing the industry.
Chief among the issues is the price being paid to fishermen. But problematic is the fact that many factors influence that price. Among the factors cited at the meeting were some of the following:
• Maine fishermen are fishing harder and extending their catches later into the year.
• The U.S. economy and the exchange rate.
• Buyers undercutting each other to get lobsters at the best price.
• Industry disorganization.
Yet if he had to sum up the price problem, Spiros Tourkakis, executive vice-president of the AHI Group and East Coast Seafood of Lynn, Massachusetts said this: there are too many lobsters coming ashore all at the same time in December.
“If the conditions are the same as last year, prices will be the same,” he said. “If the conditions are all the same, why would the price be any different?”
Both the LFA 34 Management Board and 1688 have come up with proposals they think would help to slow the glut of lobsters coming ashore in December. Two weeks ago licence holders were asked to vote on a LFA 34 proposal that would have seen a trap reduction and a one-week delay to the season. However the majority of licence holders voted against both proposals. 1688 has suggested such measures as not going fishing for two days of the week until Jan. 4 or a split season, things its paid membership is voting on.
Aside from the glut of lobsters, another problem that was talked about was the quality of the landed product. Tourkakis said if you have 14.5 million pounds of the 40 million pounds of landed lobster going to the cannery that doesn’t bode well for the entire industry because there isn’t a price to compensate for the good lobsters. And, he said, cannery meat and tail prices impact what the shore price will be.
There was some discussion during the meeting about whether grading at sea is something that fishermen should be doing more of. There was also talk of whether the industry should look at not landing culls (lobsters with deformed claws) during the upcoming season. Leaving the culls in the water might decrease the catch by 10 per cent. However, said Robert Harris of the LFA 34 Management Board’s pricing committee, if fishermen are asked to do something, they’ll want to know that it’s worth their while and the buyers are going to do something back.
For now, no decisions have been made but the sides will get together again soon to continue to talk.
When it comes to the lobster season, something fishermen always want to know is what they will be paid for their lobsters.
Tourkakis said that’s a question buyers can’t answer at this point.
“Nobody knows the price because nobody knows how much lobster is going to be landed and how the market is going to react to that,” he said.
James Mood, 1688 president, suggested to the buyers in the room that their side of the industry should be showing more leadership when it comes to controlling the glut.
“You fellas have got to come up with a plan to slow the production down,” he said, suggesting, as one example, that the buyers could tell fishermen they won’t buy lobsters on a certain day of the week, so don’t bother bringing them in that day. “This is your responsibility,” he insisted.
However Cory Nickerson, co-chair of the management board, said he still felt the onus is on fishermen to slow the glut of lobsters landed. He said the trap reduction proposal that had been pitched to industry wouldn’t have necessarily decreased the overall season catch, but it would have decreased the effort at the start to make it more manageable.
One thing all sides talked about and agreed to during the meeting is there needs to be less finger pointing in the industry.
“Industry needs to be more united. Fishermen are fighting fishermen. Buyers are fighting buyers. Fishermen are fighting buyers,” said Tourkakis, who said the blame game doesn’t do anything to solve the problems.
“We are all embarrassed when the lobster price is below bologna,” he said, saying the sides have to work together to come up with solutions.
Marc Surette, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fishpackers Association agreed.
"I am very pleased with the discussions. It shows that this industry can acknowledge that it is in all our hands to affect changes. It will be difficult, but worthwhile,” he said. “With the frank dialogue about everyone's concerns being given the respect and consideration each person deserves, we can begin to take the steps to improve the industry for those involved directly as well as for our communities, which depend on it."