Changes to how the water content of sea cucumbers is deducted from its price at the wharf are keeping harvesters out of the water this summer, despite a 10 cent per pound increase in price from last year prior.
Sea cucumbers represent a $10-million industry in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to Fish Food & Allied Workers president Keith Sullivan. The creatures are a delicacy in Asian countries and other markets, and fetch a price of 70 cents per pound, according to the province's fishery pricing panel.
When catches are landed, processors drain the water inside sea cucumbers to remove the weight of the sea water from the buying price.
Harvesters used to deduct 23 per cent of the sea cucumber's weight across the board to account for the water, but that percentage has been changed in the past year, and Sullivan says the harvesters' bottom lines are being impacted.
"Whereas other years you might be getting paid for 80 per cent or close to that of the animal, this year in a couple of cases we're talking just over 50 per cent," Sullivan told CBC Radio's The Broadcast last week.
According to Derek Butler, executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, the average deduction on a catch of 200,000 pounds in 2021 is about 37 per cent.
Using this rate and the current price of 70 cents per pound, a 200,000 pound catch of sea cucumber would fetch a harvester a price of $88,200.
Using last year's numbers for comparison, a 23 per cent deduction rate and a price of 60 cents per pound, a 200,000 pound catch would net $92,400.
Sullivan said the situation has been created by several factors, including a lack of transparency during negotiations with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Association of Seafood Producers. Harvesters were told the same process as last year would be in place, he said, but that isn't what's happening on the wharf.
"We really want to work with the processing sector to get this fishery back on track. Because as of now, harvesters have told me it's not something that they can fish for if we're going to kind of manipulate the water loss," he said.
"There's a number of problems. Some of them are more systematic, and we'll look to meet with provincial government to deal with the transparency issues overall. But right now, we're looking at finding a way to make it a profitable fishery for everybody in sea cucumber this year."
Processors' association hopes people will fish this season
Butler said changes to the water deduction system were advocated for last year. He said DFO has not responded to their inquiries about water deduction.
"In the past, there had been an industry practice to pay a net 23 per cent deduction on water, and that was inappropriate," Butler told The Broadcast.
"At the end of the day, if we're going to mature this industry and if we're going to grow the industry, it is only appropriate if we're going to have a collective agreement with terms and conditions that we make provisions for independent grading … on the wharf, and that they would make the appropriate deduction."
Butler said the sea cucumber market has seen a decline since 2020, despite the price increase.
"The loss to harvesters would be reflective of the market decrease," he said. "In fact, the full extent of the market decrease year over year is not reflected. Producers are still taking the brunt of the market decline because we increased the price in an agreement between the parties just a few weeks ago.
"Nobody wants to make less money next year … but there will be less money in the sea cucumber business this year just based on the market decline."
Butler said he hopes to see harvesters in the water this summer and that the Department of Fisheries can help parties come to a solution given the uniqueness of the situation.
"It would be no good to absent ourselves from the market for a year in the hopes everything gets fixed next year."