By mid-April 2015 some Prince Edward Island fishermen were so anxious about the unusual ice conditions in their harbours that many grabbed their chainsaws and started trying to clear up the blockages themselves.
In the end, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) decided to delay the spring lobster season from its usual April 30 start date in the hopes that the ice would clear out naturally. The season officially opened several days later and was extended at the tail end of the season to make up for the lost time.
Craig Avery, president of the P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA), said recently that Island fishermen are hoping for a smoother start to the spring season this year — in every sense — in LFAs 24 and 26A.
“The market is very strong all over the world right now. Asia is still ordering a lot of lobster, especially in the live market, European markets are increasing and Canada… the meat market is very very strong. So we’re hoping for a stronger price in 2016,” Avery said.
It’s been a rocky couple of years in the P.E.I. lobster industry as catches skyrocket and prices sluggishly start to rise above dismal levels reached in the early 2010s. Changes to the temporary foreign worker program and ongoing crew shortages have also posed problems.
A glut of lobsters in local processing facilities in 2014 forced buyers to take the rare step of introducing quotas at some wharves. And while fishermen were pleased overall with the 2015 season, they still see room for improvement.
“Catch-wise, yeah. There were record catches. But we’re hoping for a little bit better price for our lobsters. We started last year with, I think, $4.50 for canners and $5 for markets, so we’re definitely hoping for a little bit stronger price,” Avery explained.
Canners are the smaller, but still mature, lobsters traditionally caught by P.E.I. fishermen that were once canned for sale, while a market lobster is a larger and more universally caught size.
Avery added that, overall, he and his fellow fishermen are cautiously optimistic about the Island spring lobster fishery. Whether that optimism will pan out on the wharves once the season is underway is impossible to predict.
But one of the biggest factors in the price equation will be the Canadian dollar, which, compared to its American counterpart, recently hit its lowest point in several years. That extra buying power is good not only for the important American market, said Avery, but the developing trade relationships the Island lobster industry has made in Europe and Asia.
Another factor is continued strong demand from China and other parts of Asia for live Atlantic Lobster, which has continued to be an in-demand product despite the slow-down in China’s economy.
Now, after several years of developing business ties in that part of the world, Island fishermen should be able to take greater advantage of the supply lines that have been developed.
“When China first started to come on, all of Asia really, transportation was a big issue. Now, because the demand is so strong, there are flights going on all the time, coming in to Shanghai, coming in to Hong Kong. We’re talking to marketing people that are being able to ship live out of Toronto, to Hong Kong. So those are all things that have been put in place in the past year or two and are really starting to work well,” Avery said.
The industry, he added, plans to keep building those relationships.
And if all goes well this season, it should have a bit more cash to do so.
This year will mark the first that a newly set up P.E.I. lobster marketing board will collect a one cent per pound levy on each captain’s catch.
The board’s creation came out of a review of the Island’s lobster industry a few years ago, which highlighted the need for greater marketing of the industry. An Atlantic regional marketing levy was originally proposed, but P.E.I. is the only province that managed to get the groundwork done in time for the 2016 season.
If catches stay on par with the past couple of years, the board is projected to bring in about $320,000 by the end of the spring season.
That’s not a great deal of money when you start talking about costly marketing campaigns, said Avery, but it’s a good start.
He’s hopeful that fishermen can partner with processors, who are also setting up their own marketing levy and the provincial and federal governments to access some respectable marketing clout.
Every little bit helps, he added.