By Andy Walker
FOR THE SOU’WESTER
Armed with a motion unanimously opposing an increase in the carapace size in any of the three PEI lobster fishing districts, Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley has a blunt message for his New Brunswick counterpart – back off.
MacKinley charged his counterpart on the other side of Confederation Bridge, Michael Olscamp, is jealous of the fact PEI catches the majority of the canner lobsters. The veteran Island minister said Island fishermen have agreed to an increase to 72 millimetres for the 2013 season – up from 71 millimetres.
He said New Brunswick wants to go to 81 millimetres.
“I’ll be putting the minister in New Brunswick, at a later date, on notice that if he and the federal government are going to try to change this, they’re in for one hell of a fight,” he said following passage of the motion.
He explained 80 per cent of the lobsters caught in Island waters are canners, compared to 20 per cent in New Brunswick. MacKinley said the Island government and industry want to draw a line in the sand opposing any further increases in the carapace size.
“Canner lobsters are an Island way of life for many people and many people across the world, especially in China and Alberta who are out there,” he said.
He said the smaller lobsters are a favourite of many consumers. He said there are over 1,200 people engaged in the lobster fishery and over 6,000 total jobs when processors and buyers are counted into the mix.
MacKinley said an increase in the carapace size would be “devastating’ to the entire province.
He said the Island industry has taken a number of measures to ensure conservation of the stocks including a licence buyout and trap reductions.
“Lobster landings have been stable over the period 20 to 25 years,” he said.
MacKinley said there is strong support in the Island processing industry as well for leaving the carapace size at 72 millimetres. He added, “The canner market is unique. Most of the other areas fish larger sizes. Processing and fishing groups in New Brunswick, as we said before, are putting
pressure on DFO.”
The Island minister noted John Saxton of Seafood News has clearly recommended that PEI not go beyond 72 millimetres, as the market desires the smaller lobsters.
“If you go to China, which I was fortunate enough to do on a trade mission, you go in there, and the plates are about a third the size of ours,” he said. “If you took one of the large lobster tails that we have you wouldn’t get anything else on the plate. The canner lobster fits there.”
Belfast-Murray River MLA Charlie McGeoghegan said he finds it “disturbing” DFO is considering the idea. A fisherman by profession, he said there has been a long-standing agreement within the industry the size will be frozen for the foreseeable future at 72 millimetres after the 2013 season.
“In PEI we have some of the best lobster science in the world, and DFO even admits to this,” he said. “We now have about 13 years of data from boats all across PEI. They’ll take two or three boats from each harbour and they try to cover all 60 harbours across the Island. Throughout the summer they come back about five times and they enter all that data, and they measure every lobster, the undersized, the egg-bearing females, the whole thing, and they compile it into a database.”
McGeoghegan added, “The industry does not want to be going to the marketplace with all the same size lobster right across North America. PEI has a niche market and does not want to lose that advantage.”
He added if New Brunswick wants to eliminate canners, it can be done by making their licence conditions different in the two provinces. McGeoghegan added, “In 26A Nova Scotia, for instance, which PEI has a 26A zone, too, they already have a different minimum carapace size than 26A PEI. This can be done quite easily with a licence condition.”
Opposition Fisheries Critic Colin LaVie added, “Fishermen on both sides of the Northumberland Strait are already prepared for a one mm increase next year, which will bring them to a legal carapace size of 72 mm. When that increase was scheduled fishermen were assured there’d be no further increase.”
LaVie added the canner lobster is a vital component of the PEI lobster brand. The opposition member said he has talked to National Revenue Minister Gail Shea (who filled in at fisheries while Keith Ashfield recovered from a heart attack) about the issue.
Tracadie-Hillsborough Park MLA Buck Watts said when he began fishing, the carapace size was approximately 63 millimetres. He is worried DFO is committed to a one size fits all approach on a number of issues including the carapace size.
Watts said when he was president of the PEI Fishermen’s Association in the 1990’s, he had frequent battles with the New Brunswick industry over the carapace size issue. He said other changes that occurred since he began his fishing career include a reduction in the number of traps from 400 to 300 and the introduction of escape hatches.
Watts said the winter season in souwestern Nova Scotia has produced an abundance of lobster and low prices and he predicted that problem will escalate “if everybody has the same sized lobster.”