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

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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."

The deal pays Canadian lobstermen about 50 cents per pound more than the market price. The cost will be split between the processing facilities and the Maritime Fishermen's Union. The union, which represents New Brunswick lobstermen, will pay its share by refinancing and extending an existing loan.

The negotiated prices are capped at 15,000 pounds per fisherman. After that, the price returns to the $3 rate.

Parsons said Cormier and others represent a small but loud voice among New Brunswick lobstermen. When lobstermen don't make money, they don't spend money, he said, and the many fishing communities along the eastern shore of New Brunswick are seeing the effects.

"We just want to go fishing," he said. "Every day we're not on the water is a day we're losing money.

"We feel like (processors) should be taking our lobsters over the U.S. lobsters. We're the ones who live here all year."

FRUSTRATION ON BOTH SIDES

Cormier's frustration is not unlike the recent frustration of Maine lobstermen, who staged their own protest by quietly tying up their boats in July to let the market process the lobster that already had been pulled from the water.

That helped, but only marginally.

Even though most attribute this year's problem to Mother Nature for warming the waters and causing the early glut of soft-shell lobsters, many feel that the industry is changing.

Maurice Guimond manages the Moncton Fish Market, a wholesaler and retailer of a variety of local seafood, including lobster. He's been watching the industry for more than a decade and said he's seen lobster devalued to the point that lobstermen can't pay their bills.

"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.

Expenses like fuel and bait, meanwhile, have increased. At $2.50 per pound, Cormier said lobstermen cannot break even, especially in a short fishing season; $3 per pound is better, but only a little.

Guimond doesn't blame Canadian fishermen for venting their frustration. He knows times are hard. But he worries that the protests could backfire.

"If we're refusing Maine lobster, they could say 'to heck with (Canada) and send it elsewhere," he said. "Then, where would we be? It's not 'scratch my back and I'll break yours.' We need each other."

The protests prompted Le-Page to convene a meeting with the few in-state processors to see whether they could handle more capacity. This year's problem could lead to the establishment of more processors in Maine, but few have been willing to make that investment.

Linda Bean, who runs one of Maine's three processors, said Maine can't compete with Canada.

"We need an international trade agreement. We need to level the playing field," she said. "The problem is not marketing Maine lobster; it's a problem of the Canadian industry being subsidized."

Friday's deal between New Brunswick lobstermen and processors averted further turmoil, but it may not be enough to stop Maine from exploring alternatives.

SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP

More than half of Maine's lobster goes to Canada for processing, but about 80 percent of that comes back to the U.S. Until that equation changes, the industry needs both countries.

Pete Daley, vice president of Garbo Lobster in Hancock, said most Mainers recognize the importance of that symbiotic relationship.

"We're all in the same boat," said Daley, who had one of his trucks stopped during the initial protests. "There might be different seating arrangements, but we sink or swim together."

Parsons, with the New Brunswick lobstermen's union, said the current problem was predictable given the steep increase in the amount of lobster being caught.

In Maine, annual lobster landings have been going up steadily for the past several years and topped 100 million pounds for the first time last year. As prices for their catch drop, lobstermen are relying on quantity, not quality, to make ends meet.

The same is true for New Brunswick, but their lobstermen have more restrictions. Maine license holders can haul 500 to 800 traps and can fish any time of year. New Brunswick lobstermen are limited to 375 traps and can fish in certain zones only during certain times.

The Lobster Council of Canada has actually advocated for less fishing, not more, Parsons said, but it's a competitive industry. Telling lobstermen to stay home is no easy task.

Cormier, the lobsterman from Cap-Pele, said he doesn't want to go up against Maine lobstermen. He said New Brunswick's processors can handle both Maine lobsters and Canadian lobsters, as long as the price is consistent and fair.

As some lobstermen continue to insist on more money from processors, New Brunswick Premier David Alford said in an interview last week that his government will work with lobstermen on a solution but will not subsidize the industry.

He called the injunction a "good first step," but said it's not a long-term solution. The deal struck Friday represented concessions by both sides and will allow the lobster season to go forward. A long-term solution, though, is needed, Alford said.

Parsons said he's optimistic that the current struggle will lead to better days, eventually. For the first time in a long time last week, lobstermen and processors were sitting at the same table.

"Maybe this needed to happen," he said. "Maybe we'll look back a few years from now and say we're all better off."

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

erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

 

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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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