New Brunswick lobster fishermen along the Bay of Chaleur, Acadian Peninsula and Miramichi Bay are setting their traps for the 2022 season Tuesday and this is the last year they'll be fishing for two different size and price classes.
Members of the Maritime Fishermen's Union in Lobster Fishing Area 23 voted 75 per cent in favour of phasing out the "canner" size, a spokesperson for the group confirmed.
Indigenous organizations were also consulted about the change, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in a news release.
The minimum has increased to 79 millimetres long from 77 mm this year, said the department.
More lobster the goal
That's the length down the centre of a legal lobster's body from between its eyes to the start of its tail.
A further increase to 81 mm — or "market" size — is planned for 2023.
"Increasing the minimum legal size of carapace will have conservation benefits by allowing more females to produce eggs before being exposed to the fishery," said DFO.
Fishermen in Area 25, along the Northumberland Strait, where the season begins in August, are expected to weigh in on size limits next month, said the fishermen's union.
Meanwhile in the Bay of Fundy, where seasons run from November to January and March to July, the size limit is already an even larger 82.5 mm and has been for about the past 20 years, according to information on the Fisheries Department website.
That's because Fundy lobsters take longer and grow bigger before reaching maturity in their habitat of colder water.
But in some parts of the Maritimes, legal canners were as small as 63.5 mm as recently as 1988.
Heading into his 49th lobster fishing season in Miramichi Bay, Tabusintac fisherman Ernest Robichaud puts a lot of stock in conservation measures such as size limits as a way to preserve the viability of the industry.
"The bigger the lobster, the more eggs they can carry," he said. And more eggs in the water should mean more lobsters survive to adulthood.
Robichaud has seen opportunities for fishermen decline since he first started out. He was able to buy his own rig after working for another fisherman for about 10 years.
But he's also seen positive effects from conservation measures taken in recent decades.
"We've come a long way," he said. "It's starting to pay dividends."
Cultivation at larva stage
About 20 years ago, fishermen started using traps with escape mechanisms so smaller lobsters could get out.
About 10 years ago, they started cultivating lobsters through the larval stage to bolster stocks.
In the wild, said Robichaud, lobster larvae float up to the surface for a couple of weeks after they hatch, where a lot of them are eaten by birds and fish. The natural survival rate is about 40 per cent.
With the seeding program, he said, they are raised in captivity to about the size of a dime and are heavy enough to stay on the sea bottom when they are "spat" through tubes onto artificial reefs.
They live in those reefs for about three years.
Fishermen in the Tabusintac area alone release 25,000 to 50,000 "spat" lobsters each summer, said Robichaud, and some of the ones that they "planted" are already big enough to catch and keep.
Seeding is also happening from other local fishing ports.
"The young men that are coming behind us, they should have a lucrative business in their future," he said.
None of Robichaud's children have taken up lobster fishing, but he got a little choked up last summer seeing how much his grandson enjoyed being on the water and hearing the boy might be interested in following in his grandpa's footsteps someday.
As for this season, Robichaud predicts catches will start out small because the water temperature is quite low. Lobsters don't move around much or trap well in cold conditions.
But overall he expects this will be another good season.
At the end of last season he was getting $8.75 for canners and $9.75 for markets.
It may take a couple of weeks to know what price fishermen will be getting this year, said Robichaud. Early estimates are anywhere from $6 to $10 a pound.
A rebound in prices
The plant owners will make that decision, he said.
Fishermen used to be able to get $.10 to $.25 a pound more from one fish plant or another, said Robichaud, but there isn't as much competition as there used to be.
Robichaud said he understands that every cent counts.
About 80 per cent of the catch is for export. A couple of weeks ago, fresh lobster was selling for $38 a pound in China.
That's the same price it was two years ago, said Robichaud.
Prices have rebounded following a slump during the pandemic.