Lobster boats tie up Tuesday as processors seek fish plant workers

Dave Stewart dstewart@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on June 3, 2014

The Morning Mist heads out into the gulf.

©Guardian photo by Brian McInnis

Covehead fisherman Ray Campbell says putting some Island lobster fishermen on a quota but not others is hurting the industry.

Some Island fishermen tied their boats up on Tuesday when buyers told them there was no market for their catches. Quotas limit the number of lobsters the fisherman is allowed to sell.

The P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association points to chronic labour shortages as the main reason. There simply aren’t enough workers to process the amount of lobster coming in.

“Where it really hurts is where one harbour is on a quota and the harbour next to them isn’t. One buyer puts his fishermen on a quota and the other fellows don’t,’’ Campbell said. “That’s where it affects them — it really affects them.’’

Campbell isn’t on a quota but some fishermen in the eastern part of the province were reportedly put on a 500-pound limit on Saturday and told not to go out Monday or Tuesday.

“The packer I sell to has a certain amount of boats and he’s been set up for 50 years. Some fellows just can’t handle it, plain and simple,’’ Campbell said.

Dennis King of the processors association confirmed there are isolated quotas in the eastern part of the province.

The season started out cold and miserable and the catches reflected that initially. However, the weather has improved over the past week to 10 days and so have the catches.

King says the processing industry could use about 400 workers right now.

“That’s how short we are,’’ King said. “We used to bring in temporary foreign workers as a bit of a Band-Aid solution. That was a bit difficult this year. There were some challenges around that file and we haven’t been able to bring in as many of those as we would like.’’

Plants at one time would simply add an extra shift but King says the workers in the plants now are doing as much as they can.

“The chronic labour shortage has really impacted our industry.’’

The problem isn’t exclusive to P.E.I. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are in the same boat. In Nova Scotia, 1,688 boats have been tied up since Saturday.

Pinette fisherman Charlie McGeoghegan, who represents the area as an MLA, says processors have known about the worker shortage for some time.

McGeoghegan believes the processors are mad because lobster fishermen went on strike a year ago over what they say were low prices and are striking back now.

He points out that four years ago the provincial government established a program in which it would buy excess lobsters that buyers couldn’t handle and hold them until processors could take them.

McGeoghegan said out of 25 million pounds caught that year, the province was only able to purchase 35,000 pounds.

“That called their bluff at the time,’’ McGeoghegan said. “How are we supposed to believe them now.’’

It all has Mike McGeoghegan, president of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association, shaking his head in disbelief.

“How can a business that’s been running for 100 years be caught off guard like this?’’ Mike McGeoghegan said, referring to holding capacity and labour shortage issues. “We’re coming up to Father’s Day, one of the biggest holidays in North America.’’

Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley said a job fair of sorts will be held in Souris on Thursday. Due to the construction of the new high school, students will be getting out about 10 days early and the local fish plants would love to hire them.

King said it’s one way they’re trying to address the challenges facing the industry.

“We’re going to try and pick up some of these kids from Souris school. If we can find 50 or 60 or 100 (kids), it’s a great opportunity to make over minimum wage. We’re going to continue to find ways to address this chronic issue which has been dogging this industry for years now.’’