Warmer waters are getting part of the credit for an uptick in lobsters off the coast of Newfoundland and some companies are betting big on the crustacean's future.
Quin-Sea Fisheries Limited is one of those companies, and it exports live lobsters from the province to China — a move prompted in part because processing other types of fish has taken a nosedive.
"Over the last three years, we've seen a heavy decline in shrimp, almost 66 per cent, and we've seen a heavy decline on quota on crab, almost 40 per cent, so it was necessary for us to look at other species," says managing director Simon Jarding.
The company started last year and is in the process of expanding its facility in New Harbour so it can handle 250,000 live lobsters next season.
Lobsters are the "Rolls Royce of shellfish" Jarding said, and a great opportunity for the company.
"The lobster was right here at our at our doorstep in Newfoundland and lobster was basically flipped out of this province and not processed in any of the plants. So we felt it was an obligation to investigate and see if we could do more lobster," he said.
'No intention of repeating those mistakes'
Quin-Sea Fisheries is vowing to make its future experience with lobster better than that of its past.
The provincial government suspended the company's lobster processing licence in May 2018 for the way it handled live lobster.
Specifically, lobsters were crammed into nearby holding pens and it's believed they died due to a lack of oxygen, essentially suffocating the equivalent of thousands of pounds of lobster. Those that didn't die became weak and their quality was reduced.
Jarding insists his company learned its lesson, got its licence back the same year, and is making changes because of the incident.
First, no live lobsters are kept at the Southern Harbour facility, where the overcrowding happened. Lobster are only processed there, he said.
"We learned that the more you can control the environment, the more you can keep [lobsters] alive — it's the reason we built a better facility," said Jarding.
"We have no intention of repeating those mistakes."
Numbers on the rise
In the last five years, lobster landing volumes have seen almost an 80 per cent increase, up to about 4,400 metric tonnes from roughly 2,100.
While an impressive increase, those volumes are still small in comparison to the rest of the Atlantic provinces. For example, in 2017, the total volume of lobster harvested in Newfoundland represented just three per cent of what was harvested in the Atlantic provinces.
Another encouraging statistic: from 2014 to 2019, the total lobster value has increased from $18 million to $60 million, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
It isn't just Quin-Sea Fisheries that has high hopes for the crustacean. Other harvesters and seafood processors are optimistic, too, according to David Decker, secretary-treasurer of the Fish Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW).
"We are projecting that in five years, this fishery in the province will exceed $100 million in landed value, which is phenomenal quite frankly," Decker said.
"Because of global warming, the resource itself is moving farther north all the time every year."
Counting young lobsters
Arnault Lebris, a researcher at the Marine Institute in St. John's, also thinks lobster have a bright future in the province.
He studies the impact of warming waters on the lobster population in Newfoundland.
Last summer, in three designated study areas in the province, Lebris and other researchers paired up with local fishermen — a partnership organized by the FFAW — to count the number of baby lobsters, hidden inside rock-filled, metal cages on the ocean floor.
"It gives us an idea of the abundance of density of young lobster in the region," Lebris explained.
In Placentia Bay, the results were less than stellar. Hawkes Bay was better, but in St. George's Bay, the results were stunning. That area yielded on average one young lobster per cage, and there were 40 cages — a similar density to other Maritime provinces.
His hypothesis is that Newfoundland's ecosystem might become more welcoming for lobster in years to come because of warming waters.
"There are more days in the year where water temperature could be between 12 and 18 degrees, and we think it helps larva survival," Lebris said.
That kind of research will help the industry in the years to come, according to Lebris.
''We will be able to see trends'' he said, which will be an important tool for harvesters who are thinking of buying a lobster harvesting licence or for seafood processors thinking about investing more in this lucrative fishery.
How the coronavirus is affecting lobster shipments
A speed bump of sorts to live lobster exports that is being watched very closely by people in the industry is the coronavirus, the flu-like illness that can cause pneumonia and other severe respiratory symptoms.
To date, the number of confirmed cases in China has moved beyond 14,000, while the death toll is more than 300. Infections have been reported in 23 other countries, with nearly 150 confirmed cases and at least one death outside China.
Nova Scotia is already feeling the impacts as lobster sales and shipments to China have been halted because of the virus.
"It's a market problem. The citizens and people are restricted in travel and they are not going out to eat," said Leo Muise of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance.
A similar impact is not being felt by lobster exporters in Newfoundland, like Quin-Sea Fisheries, because direct flights to China with live lobsters onboard won't resume until later this year and the harvesting seasons for lobster are different in this province than Nova Scotia.
"[This virus] goes beyond business ... it seems like a world concern," said Jarding.
"I think we will have to adapt to this situation ... [we're] trying to prepare as good as we can."
For now, the numbers are encouraging.
"We think that it can grow, the production might double and the lobster might become one of the most important fisheries in Newfoundland, maybe the most important in around ten years," said Lebris.