Calls grow to delay all spring lobster fishing in eastern Canada

Maritime lobster processors are calling for a minimum two-week delay in the opening of the spring fishery in all lobster fishing areas in eastern Canada.

It's the latest reaction to collapsed demand after measures to curb the spread of coronavirus shut down markets like restaurants and cruise ships around the world.

The request is being taken seriously by lobster fishermen's groups in eastern Nova Scotia, which have held conference calls since a letter from the processors, titled "Message to Canadian Lobster Harvesters," was delivered March 23.

The letter was written by Jerry Amirault, of the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, on behalf of "Canadian lobster processors."

One Nova Scotia association president says there is a consensus that a delay may be in order but fishermen will be consulted first and a mail-out vote held before any decision is made.

"There's practically no market, likely we're looking at very reduced markets," said Peter Connors, president of the Eastern Shore Fisherman's Protective Association. 

"We don't see that there's going to be any prospect for a fishery here without creating a lot of undue competition and dislocation."

Connors represents 157 licence holders in Lobster Fishing Area 32 015 — the first spring fishery in Nova Scotia to open, on April 19.

He says a private Facebook page has also been set up to gather opinions.

Processors are asking the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to delay openings in LFA's 32- 27 in Nova Scotia.

Last year landings in these areas were valued at well over $100 million and employed 2,261 people, according to a Fisheries and Oceans Canada economic assessment.

The processors also want an immediate suspension of the southwest Nova Scotia lobster fishery ,which is still underway.

Fishermen there have seen prices paid at the wharf fall from $8 to $4 per pound since the outbreak first shut down markets in China in late January.

An estimated three million pounds is now stranded in storage.

Bleak outlook

The processors said the suspension and delayed opening would be reviewed in consultation with all parties — presumably, including fishermen.

Amirault, a spokesperson for the Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, declined to comment saying this is in the hands of fishermen and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

His letter is not designed to reassure.

"Many believe 2020 will be much worse than the combined impact of the 2008 economic crisis and the 2012 glut season," Amirault wrote.

"Looking ahead, experts predict we are likely looking at a minimum of two months of crippling economic conditions and major customers can provide us with no visibility as to when market conditions will recover."

COVID-19 'a rapidly evolving challenge'

Earlier this month another industry group, the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance, also called on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to suspend lobster fishing in southwest Nova Scotia because of the market collapse.

The request was rejected by fishermen in LFA 33.

"While we all understand that there are major marketing concerns amid this global pandemic, we also understand we need to protect the rights of harvesters to be able to continue to operate their individual businesses as they see fit," Stephen Bond, co-chair of Lobster Fishery Area 33 Advisory Committee, said in a release.

A spokesperson for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Bernadette Jordan, did not provide a position on the latest request.

"At this time, no changes have been made to fishery opening and closing dates in Canada," press secretary Jane Deeks said in a statement to CBC News.

"COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving challenge, and we will continue to consult with harvesters, processors, and industry partners to assess the situation on an ongoing basis."