COVID-19 has Nova Scotia fishing industry reeling

Nova Scotia's provincial government has amended an emergency order in order to explicitly exempt fishing vessels from a ban on gatherings of five people or more.

The move addressed a seafood industry concern about the government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency on Sunday and issued orders meant to curb the outbreak.

Fish plants were among essential services exempted, but the order was silent on fishing vessels where social distancing is not possible.

The ambiguity was a source of confusion for companies with larger vessels at sea or tied up at the wharf ready to sail.

"We are trying our best to comply with the public health directives, the only one we're clearly unable to meet and are awaiting additional guidance on is the social distancing aboard fishing vessels," Alain d'Entremont, CEO of Scotia Harvest, told CBC News in an email before the order was amended.

"I've been in repeated contact with the labour board, MLAs and the provincial department of fisheries for additional guidance."

Clarity for essential services

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil promised clarity for essential service businesses.

"We will have a comprehensive tool posted very soon for companies to look at, just be patient," McNeil said.

Seafood companies like Scotia Harvest, a groundfish harvesting and processor based in Digby, have responded with numerous policies to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Scotia Harvest closed all its facilities to the public, required workers, boat crews and contractors to sign a declaration they do not need to self-isolate, expanded handwashing and hired a full-time employee to clean and sanitize surfaces.

d'Entremont later responded to the amended emergency order.

"Fishermen and plant workers are vitally important to the food security of this province and country and I believe that where possible they will step up and continue to support this province and communities as they always have."

Working to stay in operation

Christine Penney, Clearwater Seafoods vice-president of sustainability, said the company is working hard to stay in operation while protecting its employees.

"Over the last three weeks, we have proactively adopted increasing health and safety measures in our offices, plants, and vessel operations utilizing the best information available from our public health authorities," Penney said in an email to CBC.

While the industry responds to the public health challenges caused by the coronavirus, the business is coping with a major downturn in the world seafood market.

'Impacting us very, very hard'

Louisbourg Seafoods in Cape Breton catches and sells many species, but the company tied up its fleet last week.

"It's impacting us very, very hard right at the moment," said manager Jan Voutier.

"The loss of markets has taken us to the point where we have no product to produce because we can't sell it. We've done everything we can to look after our staff to this point … and now it's more of an issue of a market not being there than actually the virus in our communities in Cape Breton," he told CBC News.

Scotia Harvest has been able to achieve social distancing because fewer people are available to work.

"We're down over 50 per cent in terms of our production staff," said d'Entremont.

"This is due to people that are ineligible to come to work due to the COVID-19 policy, are uncomfortable with working during this time, or they are the primary caregiver for children or others in their family."

MORE TOP STORIES