N.S. premier criticizes China for requiring lobster shippers to assume COVID-19 liability

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is criticizing a new border measure imposed by China that requires Canadian lobster exporters to assume liability for COVID-19 in order to get their product into the country.

"I don't believe that the requirement to accept liability on live seafood going into that marketplace is a reasonable one," McNeil told reporters in Halifax Thursday.

China is the second largest market for Canadian lobster, with exports of live lobster alone in 2019 valued at $457 million, most of it supplied by inshore fishermen from Nova Scotia.

That demand has upended traditional economics in the fishery. Even as landings soared in recent years, the increased demand from China helped keep prices up.

Earlier this year, it came crashing down when China shut down because of the pandemic.

The border impediments

Sales had just started to recover when a COVID-19 outbreak in a Beijing seafood market last month was traced to a cutting board used for imported Atlantic salmon.

In response, China increased random inspections on all imported food.

That forced exporters of live lobster from Nova Scotia to cancel shipments rather than risk their perishable product while they waited up to 36 hours for test results.


China then demanded companies sending food into the country to sign a customs declaration accepting liability if COVID-19 is found on their product.

Some Nova Scotia shippers of live and frozen lobster refused because they were uncertain what liability entails in the Chinese legal system and fearful of becoming pawns as tensions rise between the countries.

They also cite public health agencies — including the Canadian Food Inspection Agency — who say there's no evidence COVID-19 is transmitted on seafood.

'It doesn't make a lot of sense'

McNeil agrees.

"I think that adding that requirement in terms of accepting liability around lobster and seafood with no evidence ... it doesn't make a lot of sense," McNeil said.

China has pushed back against Canadian criticism, arguing all countries are subject to these conditions, which are focused on combatting the spread of the coronavirus.

The Seafood Alliance of Nova Scotia is awaiting legal advice about what assuming liability would mean in China.

In the meantime, some Nova Scotia exporters have signed the customs declarations in order to get their product into China.

McNeil said the province is promoting more sales to Europe as a way to diversify markets while lobbying for easier access to China.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

The border issues come as lobster fishing season in Nova Scotia winds down for the summer.

Large-scale harvesting will not occur until the fall when seasons reopen in southwestern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy.