'Lots of lobster, but we can't bring them in': Some P.E.I. fishermen dealing with catch limits

Some Island fishermen say a week into the delayed spring season, they're just not able to sell everything they're catching.

"Pretty good catches so far. But almost everybody's on a quota right now," said Gerard Whalen, a long-time fisherman in Naufrage in eastern P.E.I.

"We're seeing lots of lobster, but we can't bring them in."

"We just can't get rid of them," added Lucas Lesperance, who docks a few boats down from Whalen.  

Lesperance said he's pulled up about 1,000 pounds of lobster some days, but his buyer has only been accepting 600-700 pounds. 

Steve Bruce/CBC

"My buyer is telling me that they just got no one to process the lobster," he said. 

Labour shortage to blame 

According to P.E.I.'s Seafood Processors Association, that is the big problem across the industry.  

Executive director Jerry Gavin said Island processing plants — which rely heavily on temporary foreign workers — are about 200 workers short this season. He said most "weren't allowed to leave their home country."

According to Gavin, that's cut the workforce and processing capacity at P.E.I. plants by about 30 per cent. 

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Add to that the two-week delay to the start of season, and Gavin said it was inevitable plants would have to set limits on how much lobster they could take in each day. 

"The assumption was correct that there'd be high volumes of lobsters harvested in the first week or so, or even longer. So what we've implemented in concert with fishers and buyers is catch limits," said Gavin. "That's communicated out to fishers on a daily basis."

The processing challenges are even greater in New Brunswick, which takes in about a third of P.E.I.'s lobster.

New Brunswick had banned temporary foreign workers from entering the province this spring, amid the pandemic. Plants there told CBC News last week they only have about half the workers they need. On Friday, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs announced those workers would be allowed in as of May 29. 

But on Thursday, fire destroyed a fish plant in northeastern New Brunswick, adding to the challenges this spring. 

Gavin said plants on P.E.I. are trying to recruit unemployed Islanders and students to fill the labour gap. New Brunswick plants were taking a similar approach. 

'There'll be a lot of guys who'll lose money' 

Gavin said he's confident that if plants can find more workers soon, they will be able to buy and process more lobster. 

"Things are picking up again. I'm hearing from processors that certainly with COVID-19, things are far from normal. But things are coming back. And customers are going to be looking for product."

Some fishermen though, like Whalen, aren't as optimistic. 

With a shortened season, limits on how much they can sell, and talk of low prices, he's doubtful this will be a profitable year for many. 

"There's just no great market for [lobster] right now," said Whalen. "Processed lobsters go to cruise ships, restaurants, casinos, all of which are totally shut down right now."

Steve Bruce/CBC

Just as the spring season was getting going last week, the federal government announced an aid package for fishermen, including up to $10,000 for those whose income drops 25 per cent this season. 

Lesperance said the way the season is playing out, that money won't go far. 

"I'd say there'll be a lot of guys who will lose money," he said. "The price of bait is the same as it was. You've got your hired men, your boat, your fuel, and insurance. It just doesn't add up."

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