MONCTON, New Brunswick – A court order issued Thursday by a Canadian judge could allow lobster processors in New Brunswick to receive Maine lobsters again, at least temporarily.

The judge granted an injunction that orders protesters not to block entrances to lobster processing plants for the next 10 days. The order says no more than six people can protest at a time, and they must stay at least 200 feet from the plants.

Canadian lobstermen protested the delivery of Maine lobsters to Canadian processors last week by blocking access to the facilities. They said Canadians could not compete with the low price of the imported product.

Fearing violence, Maine truckers turned around and haven’t traveled to Canada since then.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage plans to meet Friday with the state’s three largest lobster processors to talk about the crisis.

As Canadian fishermen negotiate for a solution with provincial officials, a group of five processors in southeastern New Brunswick requested the injunction from the Court of Queen’s Bench to halt protests and allow lobsters to flow in for processing.

The injunction names the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, but New Brunswick officials have said the protests are being led by a fringe group that believes the lobstermen’s union is not doing enough.

Jean-Pierre Cormier, a lobsterman from Cap-Pele, New Brunswick, who is one of the protesters, said Maine lobstermen shouldn’t be giving away their catch.

“I understand why our processors want their cheap lobsters, but it’s killing us,” he said from his wharf Thursday. “We can’t earn a living on $2.50 a pound.”

Cormier said the injunction was a bit of a slap in the face. “How do you have a protest with six people?” he said.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who asked the State Department on Wednesday to get involved on the lobster blockade, issued a statement saying she welcomed the injunction.

“While this court action stands over the next 10 days, it is my strong hope that both sides can coalesce around a path forward to rectify this situation and ensure Maine soft-shell lobster is shipped in a timely manner to the Canadian processors without intimidation, violence or coercion,” she said.

New Brunswick Premier David Alward characterized the injunction as a good first step in resolving the lobster battle.

“My expectation is that these processors will begin to see a flow of product while we continue an open dialogue with everyone who is affected,” Alward told the Portland Press Herald.

More than half of Maine-caught lobsters are shipped to Canada, where processors turn them into meat and frozen products.

A glut of soft-shell lobsters this season has depressed the prices that lobstermen have been getting for their catch, to well below $3 a pound.

New Brunswick’s lobstermen don’t want processors there buying Maine lobsters for such low prices and want their provincial government to step in. Canadian lobstermen want $4 a pound for the lobsters they catch when their season starts next week.

The protests boiled over Wednesday in Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital. Lobstermen tossed traps into the office of federal fisheries minister Keith Ashfield in an effort to get him to intervene. Ashfield was not in the office, but the protesters succeeded in getting a meeting with him scheduled for Friday.

In Maine, LePage has requested a meeting Friday with the state’s three largest lobster processors to discuss the issue’s impact on the Maine lobster industry. Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster, Shucks Maine Lobster and Cozy Harbor Seafood were invited to attend, according to Bean.

“We need an international trade agreement. We need to level the playing field,” Bean said. “The problem is not marketing Maine lobster, it’s a problem of the Canadian industry being subsidized.”

Bean said she plans to raise the possibility of a tariff on Canadian lobster sold in the United States. She praised Snowe’s call for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the growing protests in New Brunswick and other eastern Canadian provinces.

“The secretary of state could have a lot of influence, but I think the U.S. Senate needs to get involved in a formal trade agreement — a possible adjustment of policy,” Bean said. “I’m very pleased the governor asked to meet with the processors.”

Last year, Maine harvested nearly 105 million pounds of lobster, according to the state Department of Marine Resources.

“We’re processing just a fraction of that in Maine. We need more processing here,” Bean said. “But we can’t sell the product for enough to get incentivized to spend $2 million on a plant, compliance, labor. We get undercut by Canadian processors.”

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@mainetoday.com

 

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@mainetoday.com