Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley says his department is working hard to try to improve lobster prices, but says solutions must be led by industry.
MacKinley faced a number of tough questions from both the Opposition Tories and from some of his own Liberal caucus members Tuesday at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Fisheries, Transportation and Rural Development.
The questions revolved around the state of crisis the lobster industry reached last year and what concrete steps have been taken to ensure last year’s record low prices are not repeated on P.E.I. wharves when fishing resumes in April.
“Right now, would you say that there’s reason for lobster fisherman in P.E.I. to be optimistic about the upcoming season, as compared to what happened last year?” Liberal backbencher Buck Watts asked MacKinley.
The fisheries minister said he always remains positive, but said fishermen and processors must put aside their differences and work together if any progress is to be made.
He pointed to two independent reports completed last year on the industry after extensive consultation.
One report was completed by former P.E.I. auditor general Colin Younker and the other by a Maritime panel struck after the fishery came to a standstill last spring due to a Maritime-wide strike over low prices.
Both reports recommended a price-setting mechanism for lobster shore prices. The Maritime panel also recommended a one-cent lobster levy to raise money for regional marketing opportunities.
MacKinley says he supports both these recommendations.
“We strongly support the levy and, as a legislative assembly, voted for it,” he said.
“I would like a price mechanism for our fishers so they know what they’re going to get before they go out to fish. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible in the province of P.E.I. or not, but I would like to see it before at least the middle of April, before the fishers go out.”
He said the province has hired a mediator to help facilitate meetings between fishermen and processors as they explore these and other ideas to improve the fortunes of the fishery.
He also pointed to new markets opening up to P.E.I. lobster products, including China and western Canada, thanks in part to government initiatives.
The rest is up to industry, MacKinley said.
“Let’s hope they come up with an agreement,” MacKinley told reporters.
“At least they’re sitting down at the table talking, that’s better than what we had last spring.”
But Opposition fisheries critic Colin LaVie, who is also a lobster fisherman, said the problems associated with low shore prices have been far from solved, meanwhile the spring fishery is just around the corner.
“This minister is not doing anything. These reports have been out since November and still there’s no headway at all,” LaVie said.
“The fishermen would like to have seen where the marketing is going, where the levy is going, where the (report) recommendations are and we found nothing out today.”