Guest Column: A road map for the future

First published in the MLA Newsletter, October, 2012.

As the fall lobster season starts to wind down on Prince Edward Island, the issues and problems faced by harvesters north and south of the border are evident. Increasing catches and low prices are commonplace. The exchange rate on our currencies has been very similar over the past few years so all fishers can relate to how far lobster at $2.50 per pound goes in meeting operating expenses. There have been stronger prices in some markets, but the reality is current prices are not keeping up with increased costs in fuel and bait, to name a few key line items.

In Atlantic Canada, data from 2004 (which was based on an average price of $5.34 per pound) showed returns were still minimal for harvesters in many areas. This is the most current aggregate data we have available from our Federal government; needless to say most financial returns have declined significantly in the past eight years.

Fishing, like farming, involves a number of environmental factors that cannot be controlled. However, there are other elements that harvesters may be able to affect in a more significant way than in the past. It is on this basis that the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) has embarked on development of a strategic plan to better face the future.

The five key focus areas are 1) assessment of emerging trends, 2) further analysis of trap and license reduction, 3) creating harvester-led initiatives in the areas of policy development and long-term research and resource management funding, 4) new market identification, and 5) the further exploration of shore price-setting mechanisms.

Although some of these topics are being tackled by the working groups of the Lobster Council of Canada, the PEIFA felt it was an important to assess the organization’s future direction in our ever-changing economic environment. To be successful this must be a bottom-up versus top-down process.

Document and data review will be the initial phase of the strategic planning. Other elements, such as one-on-one interviews with fishers and a membership-wide survey, will be vital in getting input on how our members feel toward the five focus areas noted above.

A recent component that has been added to the mix is a public perception survey on our industry and how it operates. In most fishing communities understanding the challenges and complexities of the fishery are well known. But with the continued urbanization of our populations in Canada and the United States, we are finding more and more people cannot relate to our fishery. This presents a significant challenge in connecting with consumers on how low prices devastate families, communities, provinces and states.

A final component will be a number of Industry Roundtables where collective input and solutions will be sought. This will be a new and sensitive topic area since historically the harvesters and processors have not worked together to address industry-wide problems. But as the old adage goes, if we continue to do things the same way, we will continue to get the same result.

After all is said and done, the end results that we are seeking are to 1) identify key industry issues, 2) set priorities and goals for the fishery on Prince Edward Island and 3) identify priorities and solutions. This will include industry and government participation at all levels.

The primary benefit of the development of the strategic plan is to provide our future association Board and Executive Directors with a road map from which to operate.

Currently in Canada we have a number of issues under discussion. These include the protection of independent owner-operators and their fleets, rationalization and reduction of licenses and number of traps fished, future quota allocations and the financial viability of new entrants. We know that many of these issues are also near and dear to the hearts of harvesters in Maine.

We are not oblivious to the fact this is an ambitious undertaking. But we do know that with over 50% of the fishers retiring over the next ten years, these challenges must be addressed.

In the time I have been involved with the PEIFA, one thing is evident – the passion that our men and women show towards the fishing profession is unquestionable. The real challenge is to restore the viability of our fleets so that our fishers can continue to live, work, and prosper in our coastal communities. We are hoping this strategic plan will be a good first step towards this goal.

Ian MacPherson is the executive director of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association, located in Charlottetown.