The Prince Edward Island lobster industry is trying to take fate into its own hands.
A plebiscite has been set for March 2015, in which members of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) will decide whether to create a commodity board for the resource. It’s a first step towards their ultimate goal of collecting a one cent per-pound levy from the catch and using the proceeds to market their product.
It’s nothing less than a historic attempt by the industry to take a more active role in shaping its future, said Ian MacPherson, executive director of the PEIFA.
“We’ve realized that the same-old, same-old isn’t working anymore,” said MacPherson.
“And I think the fishers of P.E.I. are to be commended for looking at some of these other options and getting behind them,” he said.
“I think it will be well worth the effort.”
Creating some type of lobster marketing initiative for the Maritimes has been discussed off and on for a number of years, but the idea got a kick off the ground in November 2013.
Two reports on the fishery were released that same month, the Maritime Lobster Panel Report, which made recommendations on a regional scale, and a separate provincial report prepared by former P.E.I. auditor general Colin Younker. Both recommended creating a marketing strategy, paid for by a one cent per-pound levy from both the harvesters and processors.
But the idea of a regional levy was received with some scepticism by fishermen in all three provinces.
Here on P.E.I., Liberal MLA Charles McGeoghegan, a lobster fishermen, stood in the legislature and said Island harvesters would be hard pressed to keep their own unique identity if their lobster was lumped into one big marketing campaign.
“How do we make sure that any money put in by P.E.I. fishers will directly benefit P.E.I. fishers?” he reportedly asked.
Despite those lingering questions, initial hopes were high in some corners for a regional levy. Early projections said all three provinces could pass the necessary legislation by the end of 2014.
But there have been setbacks.
New Brunswick saw an election that brought a change in government and Nova Scotia has wrestled within its internal industry about the idea. Only P.E.I. looks to be on course to have a levy in place by the start of the spring 2015 fishery, but it will be for a provincial, not regional, marketing campaign.
The PEIFA polled its members in November of 2014 to gauge how much interest there was in continuing with the initiative, and the results were encouraging, said MacPherson, as 69.4 per cent of respondents, about 50 per cent of the membership, were in favour of collecting a marketing levy.
Once the association determined there was sufficient support, it invoked P.E.I.’s Natural Products Act as a means to collect the money.
The act has been in place for many years and while it is primarily used by the agricultural sector it also applies to the fisheries.
If the association gets a positive result in the March vote, it will move to create a marketing board and impose the collection of the levy. If the Island’s seafood processors match it, initial projections predict roughly $500,000 will be collected annually.
Without divining the future, MacPherson said he’s hopeful fishermen will give a green-light in March.
“You don’t want to make predictions or draw conclusions, because it is formal process — but at the end of the day we are hearing back from a number of PEIFA members that this is a good opportunity for the harvesters to get more involved and understand other parts of the industry,” he said.
“You know, there are a number of other sectors that have had levies in place for a number of years, there’s quite a bit of data out there that I think shows it does have a positive benefit if it’s well structured and well organized.”
“It’s like anything in that you can’t just assume that what you’ve done in the past will continue to be sufficient for getting a suitable return in the future.”
Lobsterman Chris Wall said he’s heard generally positive things about the idea of a levy on his wharf — but concerns remain.
“I think the levy is a good idea — as long as it doesn’t turn into another layer of bureaucracy. And that the money gets used for what it’s supposed to be used for, not just to create a few well paid jobs for people in Charlottetown,” said Wall.
“Nobody in my circle has much objection to paying it, but they don’t want to get into a heavily structure organization with a lot of people.”
Something definitely has to be done, he added, as catches have doubled in the last decade while prices have lagged behind.
“It doesn’t work out to be a scandalous amount of money if they can open up some markets and move some product.”
The Navigator attempted to contact the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association for comment on this article but received no response.