August 14, 2012

Lobster fishermen 'all in the same boat'

Even as an agreement averts a looming crisis in New Brunswick, lobstermen in Canada and Maine remain at the mercy of processors

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

CAP-PELE, New Brunswick - Jean-Pierre Cormier stood on the dock at Aboiteau Wharf last week in this southeastern New Brunswick fishing town. A dozen or so fellow lobstermen stood with him and chatted about the weather and where to go for lunch.

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Jean-Pierre Cormier, the spokesman for a group of lobstermen on Aboiteau Wharf in Cap-Pele, New Brunswick, says, “We can’t fish for $2.50 a pound. How do you make a living on that?”

Photo by Gilles Landry

click image to enlarge

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Behind them were neat rows of lobster traps stacked six high. Their boats were tied up to the dock in a perfect line along the water's edge.

In a normal year, the lobstermen and their boats would be motoring around Northumberland Strait, setting traps for the start of a short late-summer season.

But this is no normal year.

"We can't fish for $2.50 a pound," said Cormier, the spokesman for a group of lobstermen who call Aboiteau Wharf home. "How do you make a living on that?"

Last week, $2.50 a pound is what Cormier and others were being offered for their catch by processors. It was the lowest price they had seen in decades, but the processors -- nearly 20 in New Brunswick alone -- said that's the price they were paying for lobsters brought in from Maine, so that's the price the market would bear.

"They are selling their lobsters for nothing," Cormier said of the Maine lobstermen. "They are flooding the market with cheap lobster before we even have a chance to get started."

But then, late Friday night, the New Brunswick processors and the Maritime Fishermen's Union struck a compromise.

Canadian lobstermen will get $3 per pound for cannery lobster and $3.50 for market lobster. It's unclear what effect, if any, the deal will have on Maine trade.

The agreement likely ends the threat of further protests at New Brunswick processors, which were at the center of the crisis last week. The demonstrations sent ripples down the coast because Maine trucks were prevented from reaching the facilities.

Cormier and some of his friends were there. Their message was simple: Reject these cheap Maine lobsters and pay us at least $3.50 to $4 a pound for Canadian lobsters.

"I don't know why they are willing to accept so little," he said of Maine's lobstermen.

Maine lobstermen don't like the low price, either. They haven't since earlier this summer, when the early glut of soft-shell lobsters made for a supply that exceeded demand.

But $2.50 a pound is better than nothing. They need Canadian processors to take those lobsters because there is not enough demand for live lobsters and because there are far fewer processors in Maine.

DIFFICULT SOLUTION

Although the problem can be explained by simple economics, the solution has been harder to grasp.

The recent protests in Cap-Pele and nearby Shediac have drawn the attention of some political heavy hitters on both sides of the border. U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate, and Maine Gov. Paul LePage set up a meeting with the state's processors. In Canada, protesters forced high-ranking provincial officials to hear them out.

Processors have been reluctant to talk about their role in the crisis, but they scored a victory Thursday when a judge in Moncton, New Brunswick, granted them a 10-day injunction against protesters. The order said protesters could demonstrate but only in groups of six and they must stay at least 200 feet from the processing facility.

Jeff Parsons, who fishes off Murray Corner, east of Cap-Pele near the Confederation Bridge that connects New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, said before Friday's deal that he thought most lobstermen would respect the injunction.

"No one wants to be in jail Monday when the season opens," said Parsons, who's on the executive board of the Maritime Fishermen's Union. "But people are fighting for what they believe in and some feel like this is their only chance. Most of us have nothing against the Maine guys."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Maurice Guimond manages the Moncton Fish Market in Moncton, New Brunswick. “Think about going into work one day and having your boss tell you that you’re going to make $2 less an hour. That’s what has happened to these lobstermen,” he said.

Photo by Gilles Landry

  


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