By Andy Walker
As fall lobster fishermen in Prince Edward Island prepare to head out on the water, they are keeping a wary eye on what is happening south of the border.
The past decade has not been kind to Island fishermen in LFA 25. Catches were on the decline for several years, although they have rebounded slightly in the last two years. Everything from the construction of Confederation Bridge to climate change has been pegged as a possible cause for past declines.
The industry has taken a leading role in a licence buy-back plan that has seen a reduction of over 33,000 traps compared to a decade ago.
With both catches and prices up in the spring fishery ($101 million compared to $67 million last year), there was a fair level of optimism as the clock wound down to trap-setting day.
That was before prices plummeted in the northeastern US. The soft-shelled “shedder” lobsters that are a major part of the American catch appeared six weeks earlier than normal. Ironically, most of the soft-shelled variety ends up in processing plants in the Maritimes.
However, the Canadian plants simply weren’t geared up to take the soft-shelled lobsters that early, or in the large numbers in which they appeared.
The soft-shelled lobsters are usually too fragile to be shipped a great distance. Their early appearance has made them even more vulnerable than even, meaning they have to be sold within a relatively small geographic area.
That’s pretty much the textbook formula for a buyer’s market. Many fishermen in Maine were receiving $2.50 a pound or less by mid-July. A number of fishermen chose to stay in port, but the idea of a widespread tie-up received lukewarm support.
The president of the Prince County Fishermen’s Association (one of six regional groups that falls under the umbrella of the PEI Fishermen’s Association) is quick to point out Island fishermen are catching hard-shelled lobsters. However, Lee Knox said his membership is all too aware depressed prices in an adjacent market seldom lead to good things.
Knox said the hard-shelled lobsters can be transported easier so they are favoured by both processors and the live market.
“It is important for the buyers and public to understand that the low prices quoted in the US are for a lobster dramatically different from our fall PEI lobster, he said.
Whether or not the marketplace does recognize the difference won’t be known until the first catches are landed in mid-August. The season runs until mid-October and the area includes fishermen from all three Maritime Provinces.
It is yet more ammunition for the argument the industry needs a new pricing formula – one that reflects the cost of production and ensures fishing will continue to be a viable option for the next generation.