August 9, 2012

Lobster dispute reaches boiling point

As protests by Canadian lobstermen intensify, Maine Sen. Snowe urges the U.S. secretary of state to look into the international conflict.

EDWARD D. MURPHY and ERIC RUSSELL / Staff Writers

FREDERICTON, New Brunswick — An international dispute over sales of Maine lobsters in Canada intensified Wednesday, with Canadian lobstermen demanding higher prices for their catch while continuing to prevent imported lobsters from reaching processors.

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Protests in the Canadian Maritimes continued to escalate as more than 200 lobstermen converged on the offices of federal fisheries minister Keith Ashfield in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on Wednesday. Above, lobsterman Albert Hebert of Saint-Louis-de-Kent awaits access to the offices while, below, protesters attach signs to the entrance of the building. A meeting with Ashfield is scheduled Friday.

Photos by Stephen MacGillivray/The Daily Gleaner

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Full text of Sen. Snowe's letter to Hillary Clinton

In the U.S., the matter reached the desk of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when Maine's Sen. Olympia Snowe urged her to investigate the growing protests in New Brunswick and other eastern provinces.

"This is an unacceptable situation that must be rectified immediately," said Snowe, who warned that the dispute could be economically devastating to Maine lobstermen, who are getting low prices for their catch on both sides of the border.

Snowe told Clinton that the protests are the result of "some disgruntled Canadian lobstermen, in a misguided attempt to protest the low retail price of lobster." She asked that the issue be made "a priority" in U.S.-Canada relations.

In Fredericton, New Brunswick's capital, protesters tossed lobster 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. It's not clear whether a deal will be reached.

Marc Cormier, 33, a third-generation lobsterman from Pointe-Sapin, was among the demonstrators who waited in the heat outside Ashfield's office. He said, "We're barely making the payments on our boats."

Beside him, his friend and fellow boat captain Pascal Mazerolle said the fishermen will not put out traps until they are guaranteed $4 a pound for their catch.

"With the prices the lobster shops are offering, you're going out there and you're paying to fish. It doesn't make sense," said Mazerolle, 38, who has been fishing for 22 years.

The demonstration, involving about 200 fishermen and their supporters, later moved to the Legislative Assembly in downtown Fredericton, where protest leaders convinced provincial fisheries minister Mike Olscamp to have a private meeting.

New Brunswick Premier David Alward, who spoke Wednesday with Maine Gov. Paul Le-Page, said he has been working to facilitate discussion among all parties.

"There have been unacceptable actions by a few fishermen but we have had a long and fruitful relationship with Maine on trade and commerce," Alward said in an interview late Wednesday in Fredericton.

The issue has plagued Maine lobstermen for weeks. 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.

Last month, Maine lobstermen stayed off the water for several days to try to let the market rebound. It didn't, and now the problem has spread to Canada, where about half of all Maine lobsters are processed.

New Brunswick's lobstermen don't want their processors buying Maine lobsters for such low prices and hope that their provincial government will step in. But processors are paying what the market will bear, about $2.50 to $3 per pound.

Canadian lobstermen want $4 a pound for the lobsters they catch when their season starts.

Lobstering in the Northumberland Strait, between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, was supposed to begin this week, but fishermen say they won't go out before Monday, putting more pressure on the Canadian government and processors to find a solution.

Alward said New Brunswick will not subsidize lobster prices. It has offered some compensation to lobstermen in the form of deferred loan payments, but the lobstermen's union has rejected the offer.

In the last several days, lobstermen have blocked the entrances of some processors in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Some observers, including Snowe, fear that those confrontations could turn violent.

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