Canada eyes reducing number of lobster licenses to protect industry

Posted March 25, 2011, at 10:55 p.m.

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick — The lower the price of lobster, the fewer the fishermen dropping traps.

It’s an ideal formula that would result in more money for those whose livelihoods depend on harvesting the bottom-feeding crustaceans, Greg Thompson says.

The 62-year-old Dipper Harbour lobsterman believes that across the region, lobster licenses need to be taken out.

“Rationalization” of the fishing fleet even in his part of the Bay of Fundy, where the fish are abundant these days, would allow harvesters to net more income at a time when money’s tight. “Rationalization” refers to the application of modern means of efficiency to an industry.

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“I’m a proponent of rationalization because I believe that fewer fishermen could harvest the lobsters we’re harvesting,” he said Friday.

Thompson said that in 2010, Atlantic Canadian fishermen pulled in 125 million pounds of lobster and harvesters in Maine landed some 93 million pounds.

“As such, theoretically we could have a better income. Our expenses are going to keep rising,” he said.

When the global recession hit in 2008, lobster prices for fishermen in the Maritimes tanked as diners south of the border started pinching pennies.

Those who had lost jobs and whose home values had been slashed by the U.S. housing crisis were less likely to hit up Red Lobster for date night, it turned out.

Lobstermen from Nova Scotia started making the trek to Moncton, New Brunswick, to sell out of the backs of their trucks, in hopes of nabbing a better price than the middlemen at the wharves were paying — which fishing unions said was barely letting them break even.

On Friday, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced it had awarded seven fishing groups across the Maritimes $14 million under a program to introduce sustainability programs in the fishery.

Ottawa is going to pay half of what it costs to pay off fishermen to get their boats out of the water, in exchange for industry ponying up the rest of the cash and moving to improve sustainability.

Since the money was promised in June 2009 under the five-year, $50 million Atlantic Lobster Sustainability Measures program that has already paid out about $30 million in funding, it’s safe from being scrapped thanks to the downfall of Stephen Harper’s Tories on Friday afternoon — which opposition parties took out through a motion of no-confidence.

Krista Petersen, spokeswoman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said she couldn’t yet offer up the names of the groups and the funding allocated.

But Christian Brun, executive secretary of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union that represents harvesters along New Brunswick’s east coast, said his organization is in line to win the lion’s share — $11 million.

That’s pending an approval from the province for a loan that would cover the other half of the $22 million rationalization program his group has planned.

New Brunswick Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Michael Olscamp, who was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon, is scheduled to speak at the fishermen’s union’s annual general meeting in Moncton on Sunday, and Brun is hoping Olscamp will have something big to say.

Brun said his program is meant to give each fisherman a better piece of the pie, noting the problem in the fishery started a decade ago when there were fewer lobsters each year in the waters, where he is.

“Everywhere on the New Brunswick east coast, in the last 10 to 15 years, have been the most difficult areas in terms of landings,” he said.

Right now, Brun said, the average fisherman in his neck of the woods makes between $30,000 and $40,000 annually on lobster sales, and after paying out expenses ends up with $10,000 before taxes — a fraction of what Dipper Harbour’s Greg Thompson and his friends on the water would likely earn.

“It’s the difference between the poverty rate and a half-decent living,” Brun said.

In exchange for government funding, Brun’s group agreed on a fishing plan to improve conservation and has promised to increase the minimal size of lobster harvesters will fish, which lets the species better reproduce.

Data collection will be improved and mechanisms will be installed on traps so that if they’re lost in the water, they’ll open and stop catching lobster.

The funding comes at a good time: Though the economy is starting to rebound, prices haven’t come up much, Brun said.

Thompson agreed.

The fishermen said Bay of Fundy lobsters are so prolific they’re flooding the market, and the high price of the Canadian dollar means dealers that paid well for the crustaceans last fall had a hard time making a buck when selling south of the border.

“I’m hearing that they may not be willing to be quite as generous this spring,” Thompson said.

He’s heard some fishermen in Grand Manan are fetching about $4.75 per pound right now, and in Nova Scotia, they’re earning $4.

It’s a poor outlook for Thompson’s season, which runs April 1-June 29.

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