FREDERICTON, New Brunswick — Fisheries Minister Mike Olscamp says he backs a call by New Brunswick fishermen for a hike in the minimum size of lobster allowed to be caught in the Northumberland Strait, citing it as a necessity in finding market stability for the industry.
A feud between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island lobster fishermen has boiled over in recent weeks — the issue being the size of lobster that can be caught during the annual 60-day season on the stretch of water between the two provinces, which begins in August and ends in October.
New Brunswick fishermen want a larger size to feed an export market in the United States where big restaurant chains are demanding bigger servings for their clients.
Island fishermen disagree, fearing further increases will eat away at their niche market for canner lobsters — the smaller, sweeter crustaceans.
The waters are home to the livelihoods of 465 fishermen from southeastern New Brunswick and 226 from Prince Edward Island as well as roughly 18 fishermen from neighboring Nova Scotia.
It also involves a process industry in New Brunswick that employs more than 3,000 people.
“I support our industry wholeheartedly, I think we need to go there to ensure that our industry remains viable,” Olscamp said. “My support is unequivocal when it comes to what our fishers are looking for in this process.
“As long as there is a glut, supply and demand rules here and the prices will fluctuate, but hopefully the demand will be higher than the supply.”
Olscamp added the move to larger lobster improves marketability to new and expanding markets in China and Europe, also noting that New Brunswick processors believe the canner market is struggling.
Olscamp said he has taken his position to Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, acting as a conduit for the province’s fisherman.
“On this issue we have talked and he is aware what is happening and he is aware of my position,” Olscamp said. “I will continue talking to him and I have at heart the best interest of this province.”
New Brunswick fishermen, frustrated with the low price of lobsters and relatively weak landings in their area last summer, blocked trucks from Maine carrying cheap imports in the lead up to their season.
To deal with the international crisis, New Brunswick’s Tory government quickly cobbled together a working group that includes representatives from the processing industry, aboriginal fishermen, the union representing the majority of southeastern lobstermen and its own Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries.
That group has since asked the federal government, which regulates the industry, to increase the minimum size of a landed lobster’s carapace — from its head to the beginning of its tail — gradually over three years as a way to ensure New Brunswick lobster stays in demand.
The Maritime Fishermen’s Union wants to move the minimum carapace size to just over 3 inches by 2015.
The carapace measure increases by one millimeter to 72 mm, or just over 2.8 inches, this year — as far as Prince Edward Island fishermen want to go.
The ultimate decision will come from the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
A delegation of lobster fishermen from Prince Edward Island walked out of a meeting last week in Moncton in which New Brunswick stated its case to federal officials.
Island fishermen will submit their official view to the federal government in Ottawa by Feb. 6, as will the small Nova Scotia delegation.
Olscamp also said on Monday that a potential free-trade deal in the works between Canada and Europe will benefit Atlantic Canada, creating a reduction in the tariffs that will aid Atlantic Canada’s export industry — including its fishery.
“There are some tariffs on certain species [of seafood] that run anywhere between 10 and 20 percent,” Olscamp said. “If they were to drop those then it would open up the door for a huge market.
“We have our fingers cross that it will come to fruition.”