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Lobster Strike fails to halt price slide

Organizer hopes lasting change to come in off-season

by Jon Grant

Earlier in May, boats stood idle in Antigonish [Photo: J. Grant]
Earlier in May, boats stood idle in Antigonish [Photo: J. Grant]

K'Jipuktuk (HALIFAX) - Lobster fishers in Nova Scotia tied up their boats for 6 days, from May 8th through to the 14th, in hopes of raising the prices of their catch and attaining a living wage. The fishing season began amid high hopes with buyers initially offering $4.50 per pound for canner sized lobsters and $4.75 per pound for market sized lobsters. Prices, however, quickly took a drastic hit as the season progressed.

Now, following the strike, Nova Scotia fishers fear that there are indications that another price drop, and possible daily quotas which seriously jeopardize fisher's ability to maintain their livelihoods, are on the horizon. Buyers have already imposed a daily quota in Prince Edward Island, where they claim it has become impossible to process the amount of lobster coming in.  Fishers in Nova Scotia fear that their industry may eventually meet the same fate.  

During the strike, Dan MacDougall, president of the Gulf Bonafide Fishermen's Organization, chaired daily meetings in Antigonish County. The meetings were attended by approximately 300 license holders, who collectively decided they would to hold out for better prices.

“The goal of the strike was to bring attention to our situation and use Mother's Day as a pushback of the fishermen towards the buyers” explains MacDougall.

Mother's Day signals the high water mark for lobster sales in Nova Scotia. While there were concerns among fishers, the decision to tie up their boats over Mother's Day weekend was “refreshing solidarity” that saw the first maritime-wide strike during lobster season with boats from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick staying ashore.  

A slowly recovering American economy, a strong Canadian dollar, slow growth in overseas markets, and what has been explained as a recent "glut" of catches have combined to create what MacDougall explains as a "perfect storm" of conditions driving lobster prices down. Previously, buyers were  able to turn a quick profit by simply exporting catches to the United States. Following the economic recession of 2008 the Canadian dollar has become significantly stronger and this quick profit on export is no longer feasible. Carving out a niche in overseas markets has also proved difficult. For example, Canadian lobster has hit a roadblock in Germany where animal rights activists have launched a campaign to ban the sale of lobsters in German grocery stores claiming that boiling lobsters alive is inhumane.  

While  catches have recently increased, low prices are causing serious financial problems for new entrants to the industry and have become a major deterrent for those wishing to enter the fishing industry.

With licenses selling for upwards of $400,000 depending on which zone the license operates in, many new entrants have become caught in a financial trap following the economic recession.  

Lobster fishing is also a seasonal industry and many employed in the fisheries work other jobs in the off-season often travelling out of province for work. Recent changes to federal Employment Insurance regulations have created a particularly tenuous situation for fishers, one that could be rendered less unstable through pre-season price setting.

MacDougall explained that the fisheries ministers of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have agreed to set up a panel to continue negotiations in the off-season which included an agreement to force buyers to set prices before the season begins. Currently fishers in Nova Scotia are not made aware of the price of their catches until they receive first pay cheque. The potential of this new agreement will allow individuals to make informed decisions as to whether or not it will be profitable to return home to begin the lobster season.  

MacDougal notes that "fishermen are open to working with the buyers to maintain the quality of their lobsters" and will do "whatever we can do to improve the marketability of our lobsters." Prices have since declined even further following the strike, but MacDougall remains optimistic that negotiations will produce higher prices for the next lobster season as long as fishers and organizations stay in close contact and work together towards a brighter future for the industry.  

It is clear that the fishery remains a staple in the economy of rural Nova Scotia contributing just under $1B in 2006. It also creates much needed spin-off jobs in the service and tourism sectors.

If long-standing adjustments – which MacDougall hopes will add security to fishers' livelihoods - are to occur, they will most likely happen during the off-season. While this season's strike did not have the immediate effect of raising prices, it remains to be seen if a united front of Maritime fishers can work with fisheries ministers to improve the marketability of their product, bring about higher prices and improve the long term profitability of the industry.  



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