Fishermen end blockades in Souris, Georgetown, Beach Point
© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
Buck Watts, right and Charlie McGeoghegan, centre, along with other fishermen go into a meeting Sunday in Charlottetown. Both McGeoghegan and Watts are MLAs and also fishermen.
A meeting Sunday in Charlottetown held to try to settle the lobster strike and get the boats back on the water appears to have failed.
Some agreements and new directions were reached, according to the PEI Fishermen's Association, but efforts to end the stalemate were unsuccessful.
Among those at the meeting were Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley, Allan Campbell, executive assistant to Premier Robert Ghiz, processors, MLAs, and representatives of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association.
Island fishermen have tied up their boats since Wednesday to protest low prices and had blockaded traffic at ports in Souris, Georgetown and Beach Point.
The protest quickly spread to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in an unprecedented sign of solidarity among notoriously independent-minded fishermen.
Thursday, talks between Island processors and the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association went nowhere. The meeting was held following a major rally earlier in the day at DFO offices attended by more than 800 fishermen.
Unless there is some movement in prices Sunday, the spring season could come possibly to an early and abrupt end for some fishermen and result in an economic crisis for the sector which is valued at more than $100 million on P.E.I.
Protesting fishermen in Souris allowed a $400,000 lobster shipment to leave the Island port Saturday evening for the U.S. in what one fisher described as a sign of good faith.
The shipment had been blocked in the town for most of the day by fishermen upset low lobster prices.
The lobsters had arrived via the Magdalen Islands from a co-op representing some 82 lobster boats. Shortly after arriving off the ferry from the Magdalens, fishermen surrounded two trucks and prevented them from leaving.
A fisherman spokesman said the live shipment would have been in jeopardy and caused hardship to fellow fishers in the Magdalens had it been held up any further.
The blockade was the latest in a series of protests across the Maritimes as many lobster fishermen refuse to fish until brokers agree to pay a higher price.
Upwards of 2,000 lobster boats remained tied up at wharfs throughout the Maritimes on Saturday.
The decision not to fish Saturday was all the more dramatic because the Mother’s Day weekend is the heaviest time for local lobster sales.
Another injunction was issued Friday in P.E.I. Supreme Court to allow shipments in and out of Seafood 2000 plant in Georgetown. A day earlier the court had issued a similar injunction for a plant in Beach Pt.
Hundreds of fishermen had defied the injunction Thursday, Friday and Saturday and used lobster boats to block access to the port areas. The blockades were lifted on Sunday.
RCMP had officers on hand while fishermen defied the injunction but no arrests were made.
The price that brokers are willing to pay varies across all three provinces but ranges between $2.75 and $3.75 per pound for canner lobster, and between $3.25 and $4 per pound for market-sized.
The price is the lowest on P.E.I. when canners are getting between $2.75 and $3, while markets are $3.25 to $3.50.
Fishermen say that with the rising costs of fuel and bait, anything less than $5 per pound is unreasonable.
The Beach Point Processing Company had filed an injunction Thursday against lobster fishermen who had blockaded the plant, placing boats blocking the access road.
On Friday, Seafood 2000 Ltd. in Georgetown, P.E.I. filed a second injunction against fishermen there who had set up blockades outside that plant.
Similar situations are playing out in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
The situation is so serious that some fishermen are planning to start landing gear Monday and end their season, after fishing only eight days this spring. Anger began when the first tickets outlining prices from buyers were given to fishermen last week.
The spring season had started out with the hope of strong prices, based on what fishermen in southwestern N.S. were getting over the fall and winter, where market lobsters were selling at times for more than $10 a pound.
“There is strong talk out there of just ending the season — if you have the ability to stop the hemorrhaging, then you do,” Ian MacPherson, executive director of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, said from Charlottetown.
Prices for market-sized lobsters are about $2 less than what was expected. MacPherson said fishermen are looking for prices similar to what they were getting last year, at around $4.50 to $5 a pound.
But there appears to be little movement on either side of the dispute, with processors arguing they can’t afford to pay more for a product that is seeing uncertain demand and competition from other seafood industries.
Jeff Malloy of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association says the marketplace cannot bear the prices being sought by fishermen and that the value slumped because too many lobsters were being caught.
“Right now, the marketplace is telling us the shore price shouldn’t be any higher than what we’ve offered, so there’s certainly an impasse,” Malloy said.
“Over the last number of years, there’s been a huge shift in the quantity being landed.”
He said the volume of lobster landed in the region rose from 150 million pounds in 2006 to 300 million pounds last year. The federal Fisheries Department valued lobster exports at about $1 billion in 2011.
But the industry is in desperate need of revision, say some who have seen Maine landings go up, demand for Canadian lobster fall as the dollar hits par and tensions rise between processors and fishermen, who sometimes don’t know what price they’ll get until well into the season.
Malloy agreed, saying the two sides need to keep talking because all sides are being hurt by the latest dispute in an industry that has been stung by slumping prices and uncertainty in recent years.
He said hundreds of people at his processing plant in P.E.I. aren’t working because product is not coming in, dealing a double blow to some families who work on the water and in the plants.
“This makes it difficult for everyone,” he said. “When there’s no lobsters, there’s no work.”