ELLSWORTH, Maine — The recent dispute between Canadian lobster fishermen and their American counterparts has left industry experts from both sides of the border calling for increased understanding about each other’s fishing seasons and seeking to work together to increase demand for the shared fishery.
That may be the only way to avoid incidents — such as the protests and blockade of Maine lobster at New Brunswick processors this month — in the wake of another abnormal season, they said.
The deal reached Saturday between a New Brunswick lobstermen’s union, processors and the province to increase the price of the fishermen’s catch by about 50 cents a pound — half from the processors, the other half in the form of a subsidy from the union — has resulted in a return to relative calm in a season one expert termed “a perfect storm.”
The deal capped a week or so of protests by the Canadian fishermen, who blockaded the delivery of Maine lobster to the processing plants and said the historically low price of Maine lobster after the huge glut was driving down prices in Canada and stealing their livelihood.
In return for stopping the protests, the Maritime Fishermen’s Union locked in a half-dollar price disparity between the price processing plants will pay for Canadian lobster versus its Maine counterpart. The deal also guarantees the processors will buy all lobsters landed by the fishermen in the 10-week season along the Northumberland Strait and the southern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Maine lobstermen depend on New Brunswick processors to buy their lobster, especially the soft-shell haul that can’t survive long-distance shipping.
Industry insiders say this is the first time in recent memory there has been a price disparity in payment from processors to Maine and Canadian harvesters. After all, they’re selling the same animal.
Because it is unusual, the gap in price caught some Maine lobstermen by surprise Monday.
“We thought [the deal] would be a good thing, because we thought we’d get more or less the same price, like always,” said Billy-Bob Faulkingham, a member of the Winter Harbor Lobster Co-Op. “That doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Faulkingham said Monday the co-op saw its price go up just 15 cents, up to about $2.50 per pound, compared with the Canadians’ reported $3.
“It’s a tough industry in a year when there’s a lot of supply,” he said. “That being said, there’s no reason a Canadian should make more than us.”
In Maine, it may seem odd that lobstermen collectively could negotiate a price for their haul. Lobstermen here are used to catching as much product as they can and taking the price determined by the market. If it’s too low, they can always stay home.
Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute — an Orono-based group that supports the lobster industry, working with harvesters, processors, dealers and the like from Long Island Sound to Newfoundland and Labrador — said that in Canada, it’s different.
The major differences, he said, are the presence of fishermen’s unions and the system for dividing the fishery into zones, each with its own season. In Maine, lobster is a year-round fishery.
Fishermen in the maritime provinces are represented by two unions. The Maritime Fishermen’s Union and The Fish, Food and Allied Workers represent all fishermen in Newfoundland. About one-third of Canada’s fishermen are unionized, according to Geoff Irvine of the Lobster Council of Canada.
That’s not that many union members, Irvine said, but the U.S. hasn’t seen that ratio of union to nonunion workers since the 1940s. In the private sector, union membership in the U.S. is at just 6.9 percent, according to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Irvine said the Newfoundland union regularly negotiates for prices, but the Maritime Fishermen’s Union doesn’t, even though it has the right to do so. This season is an anomaly, he said.
“They haven’t used those rights in many years,” he said.
Efforts to contact the Maritime Fishermen’s Union on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The protesting fishermen harvest in Lobster Fishing Area 25. The season there started Monday and lasts for 10 weeks. Facing declining prices, a short window of opportunity and the onslaught of supply from Maine, the fishermen felt forced to take action, Bayer said. When they did, their union provided them a means to negotiate a more favorable price — which Maine fishermen lack.
“That’s their entire livelihood in 10 weeks,” he said. “What they don’t make in 10 weeks, that’s it. They have no other opportunity.”
Irvine, with the Lobster Council of Canada, played down the role of the union in the volatile lobster season. He said it doesn’t make a lot of the difference between Maine and Canadian fisheries. He said the real contributing factors in the protests, blockades and price deal is the “perfect storm” of factors including Maine’s early and heavy arrival of soft-shell lobsters and the timing of Maine’s glut.
“The story is a fluke of nature caused an international incident that was big, and not normal,” he said. “The normal course of affairs is that we work really well together.”
Irvine said Maine’s early molt, and resultant early season, arrived right as New Brunswick processors were shutting down and refitting before the normal schedule. By the time the plants opened, the damage was done.
“Once our plants were opened and refit, the price had collapsed because [Maine lobstermen] had no place to send the lobster,” he said.
In normal conditions, Maine and Canadian seasons complement each other, Irvine said, with Mainers landing the bulk of their catch when Canadians are slow, and vice versa. This year, Mainers were ready to ship lobster to processors as early as May. Normally the push doesn’t come until August, Irvine said.
“They came really early,” he said. “Still, we should have predicted it. Everyone knew it was going to happen. We need to work a lot closer on that.”
Irvine’s counterparts in Maine agreed that the two fisheries likely will learn a lot from this month’s “international incident.”
“I think that in the last week-plus, we in Maine and in Canada have learned a lot about how our fisheries work, and how they work together and how they’re different,” said Annie Tselikis, education coordinator for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
Tselikis said there’s no getting around the lower price for Maine lobster compared with New Brunswick’s landings, or for that matter, any of the other problems associated with this bizarre lobster season.
“In the short term, I don’t think there are any great magic-wand solutions that we can put into place right now,” she said.
The oversupply may be acute this season, but the general trend in landings has been up in Maine for decades, Tselikis said. From 2007 to 2011 alone, landings went up by 30 million pounds per year.
Maine and Canada both need to address the demand side of the market, she said. That means general product marketing and creating additional processing opportunities in Maine.
“We are in a position where we have a lot more work to do to be educated about the function of our markets, and to figure out how to increase the demand for our products,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.