ELLSWORTH, Maine — As Maine lobstermen contend with historically low prices for their catch, the economic discomfort resulting from the state’s oversupply of soft-shell lobsters appears to be spreading across the border into Canada.
On Thursday, New Brunswick fishermen publicly expressed their displeasure that some lobster processors in the province are getting their supply from Maine rather than from Canadian fishermen. Hundreds of them staged protests at processing plants in the towns of Shediac and in Cap-Pele, on the province’s east coast.
At the Shediac Bay Processors plant in Shediac, New Brunswick, fishermen prevented a tractor-trailer truck driver from unloading lobster imported from Maine on Thursday. The truck ended up leaving under a Royal Canadian Mounted Police escort without having unloaded its cargo.
The truck driver has been identified in media reports as Leonard Garnett of L.H. Garnett & Girls Transport in Steuben. Attempts Friday to contact Garnett and his family were unsuccessful.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said Friday in a prepared statement that at least two Maine trucks were escorted Thursday back to the U.S. border after they were unable to unload lobster at New Brunswick processing plants. Details about the second incident were unavailable Friday afternoon.
“I take this situation very seriously and am working to avoid any further disruption to the markets that could complicate an already difficult lobster season in Maine,” Keliher wrote in the statement.
Gov. Paul LePage and members of Maine’s congressional delegation are aware of the situation and are prepared to contact their Canadian counterparts, he added.
Keliher said during a phone interview later Friday that he had spoken that afternoon with Michael Olscamp, New Brunswick’s fisheries minister, and that they had a good conversation. He said the minister had been in discussions with New Brunswick processors and fishermen for most of Friday and that they were close to reaching an accord.
According to Keliher, Olscamp is “keenly aware” of the glut in Maine and that, as long as there is an oversupply, it will affect the lobster industries on both sides of the border, which largely depend on one another. Any blockade of Maine lobster in Canada, he pointed out, is a violation of trade agreements between the two countries.
“If our lobster don’t go over the border to their processors, those processors go out of business because they won’t operate year-round,” Keliher said.
Keliher said he will remain in contact with Olscamp over the weekend and that he’s “cautiously optimistic” there will be no more blockades.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Friday the blockades in New Brunswick were “misguided.” She said all lobstermen, Canadian and American, are feeling the pinch of a weak demand and oversupply.
“I think it is a bunch of hard-working fishermen who are afraid they won’t be able to feed their families,” she said of the protesters.
McCarron said much of the lobster caught in Maine in the fall, which make up most of the landings in the U.S., are shipped to Canada for processing and much of the resulting product is shipped back to the United States to buyers such as casinos and cruise ships.
“It’s a very important market for us and we’re a very important market for them,” McCarron said of Canada. “Nobody can wave a magic wand and fix the market. There just isn’t an answer right now.”
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said in a statement Friday that she had spoken with Patrick Binns, the Canadian Consul General for New England, to discuss the matter. Binns shares her desire that the situation be resolved quickly, she said.
“The lobster trade between the U.S. and Canada is a critical part of the fishing economy in Maine and anything that disrupts it is of concern,” Pingree said.
The current glut of soft-shell lobster in Maine has resulted in Maine fishermen getting paid around $2 per pound for their catch. Earlier this summer, the boat price for many fishermen was less than $2 per pound.
The last time Maine lobstermen were paid an annual average price of less than $2 per pound for their catch was in 1980, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics. Expenses, however, remain high. The price of diesel fuel, which most fishermen use on their boats, is about $2.50 higher per gallon than it was 10 years ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Some Maine lobstermen resorted last month to tying up their boats briefly, but the glut and low boat prices remain.
Earlier this week, about 50 people representing Maine’s lobster industry — including fishermen, dealers and DMR staffers — met in Camden to discuss environmental and market conditions that have helped create the glut and possible management steps that might restore the industry’s economic viability. What concrete measures, if any, that officials might take remains unclear and likely will take months to develop.
On Thursday, fishermen in southeastern New Brunswick said they were prepared to keep protesting to stop cheap Maine lobster from being processed in the Canadian province. They said it’s not fair that the inexpensive lobster is being imported just as they prepare to begin their summer lobster season next week in the Northumberland Strait, between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. One of the protesters, Maurice Martin, said the processing plants risk “destroying his living.”
The protests followed a meeting called by the Maritime Fishermen’s Union where lobstermen were told that local processors may not need as much Canadian lobster. Officials with MFU did not return a voicemail message seeking comment Friday afternoon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.