A glut of lobsters has driven down the price of the prized crustacean in the Maritimes, leaving fishermen scrambling for ways to prop up their earnings.
The lobster industry — worth about $580 million in the region — has been battered in recent years, with prices dropping by a third within the last three years.
Prices are hovering around $3 per pound, down from $4.50 per pound in 2009, according to the Lobster Council of Canada.
“Everybody is talking about going back to the drawing board in January when things start to slow down,” said Marc Surette, executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association.
Surette said record landings combined with the economic downturn in Europe and the United States have made the lobster season, which opened in southwestern Nova Scotia late last month, particularly difficult.
Packing plants have been dealing with catches that are up 25 to 30 per cent from last year, he added.
“In an industry that’s been traditionally status quo year after year after year, all of a sudden we’re seeing a totally different way of having to do business,” Surette said from Yarmouth, N.S.
“We’re just trying to get used to it.”
But fishermen have been reluctant to make changes that would limit their catch. Before this season began, the management board of a southwest Nova Scotia fishing zone proposed a trap reduction from 375 to 300, as well as delaying the season a week. Fishermen rejected the idea.
Laurence Cook of the Grand Manan Fishermen’s Association in New Brunswick said limiting catches would further burden fishermen who are competing against those south of the border.
“To talk about us landing less lobsters or controlling landings in Canada... you have to deal with the biggest supplier to the market, and that’s the state of Maine,” said Cook.
Cook, who has been a fisherman for 21 years, said harvesters, processors and live shippers need to collaborate to develop a more transparent system that would lay out what it costs to fish, produce and ship lobsters.
“We have to deal somehow with the discrepancy between the low price fishermen are getting and the relatively high price the consumer is paying,” said Cook, adding that in some European markets, Canadian lobster is selling for around $22.
“The resource is definitely there ... so we have to streamline the process and become more efficient in how we deliver it from the water to the wharf and from the wharf to the consumer. That money needs to be spread a bit more equitably between the people that are handling it.”
Surette said his organization has been working with the Lobster Council of Canada to expand demand in other markets, such as Asia.
“If we can do that, the price will certainly go up because we will increase the demand to match the supply,” said Surette.
John Tremblay, a scientist that studies lobster populations at the Halifax-based Bedford Institute of Oceanography, said the Gulf of Maine region has long been the “centre of lobster abundance” in the western north Atlantic.
But other waters — including the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia — are also experiencing high landings, he said.
“This is quite a wide-spread phenomenon,” Tremblay said. “We’re close to all-time highs in lobster landings if you look throughout Atlantic Canada.”
The glut is no surprise, he added, as lobster populations have been steadily increasing since the mid-1980s.
There’s a number of factors influencing the bountiful supply. Warmer water temperatures are causing lobsters to move around more, making them more likely to enter traps, said Tremblay. He said there are also fewer predators due to a decline in groundfish like cod.
Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said although fishermen are grappling with low prices, the abundance of lobsters should be seen as an opportunity.
“It’s up to us to figure out how to manage it profitably,” Irvine said from Ottawa.
“Our recommendation has always been that specific fishing fleets implement selective trap limits when they feel that they should.
“They can influence it by managing their own supply. ... There’s not many other measures that you can take.”
A Senate committee is studying the state of the lobster fishery in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. It is expected to make recommendations in the spring on how the industry can address its challenges.