Eastern New Brunswick: Similar fisheries, fears

First published in Landings, July, 2013.

When you are invited to attend a meeting in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, a seven-and-a-half hour drive from southern Maine, it makes sense to do as much as you can while you’re in the area. Jean Lavallée of Aquatic Science and Health Services in Prince Edward Island is the preeminent researcher on lobster veterinary science. I had wanted to attend his full Product Quality and Handling training session for several months. So when he invited me to a session that was “close by” (meaning not in Cape Breton or Newfoundland), I thought my chance might not come again. To take full advantage of the trip, I also added a meeting with the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, the MLA’s counterpart in the Canadian Maritimes, and a tour of one of the many area processing plants.

Northumberland travel 2013After you exit Route 11 in Shediac, New Brunswick, and wind your way toward Main Street, past the giant lobster sculpture, lobster restaurants, and numerous signs proclaiming the town the Lobster Capital of the World, you eventually will find the Maritime Fishermen’s Union (MFU) office, located in an old yellow building just outside of the downtown area.

MFU organizer Michel Richard welcomed me into the office. At 43, Michel has served the MFU for the last eleven years. We talked about our respective organizations, the differences and similarities in the lobster fisheries, and I quickly realized that he is deeply passionate about his job and the industry he serves.

MFU has members in Canadian Lobster Fishing Areas (LFA) 23, 25 and 26, which range from northeast New Brunswick through the Northumberland Strait to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and LFA 34 in southwest Nova Scotia. Each LFA has a distinct fishing season. After about an hour, Michel offered to take me around to some of the local wharves so we hit the road. Our first stop was just outside of Shediac at Pointe-du-Chene. There I met a fisherman named Norbert who was working on his wooden traps in preparation of the LFA 25 season (which starts August 10 and closes October 10).

We traveled on to Cap-Pelé and turned down Chemin du Quai – Wharf Road – passing a large seafood restaurant and a herring smokehouse before encountering Michel’s predecessor with the MFU, a fisherman named Mario. He was just wrapping up his snow crab season and hauling his boat out of the water. The coastline in this area is flat and sandy and this particular wharf makes use of a natural sand dune as a sort of breakwater. As we left the wharf and continued along the road to Petit Cap, we passed numerous smoke houses and notable processing operations like Westmorland Fisheries and Cape Bald Packers.

Suddenly it hit me: every wharf that we visited was a wharf of independents. Each wharf in every harbor is built and maintained by the federal government and managed by local volunteer not-for-profit Harbour Authorities. Each wharf has an ice house (which may or may not be maintained depending on local needs), a boat launch, excellent breakwater systems, concrete decking. They all seemed to be in incredible condition. Bait is supplied by the buyer to whom a fisherman sells his catch. Groups of fishermen might pool together to have an Irving or an Esso fuel truck meet them at the dock to refuel their vessels. The tides in the region are small – only about three feet on average – so hoists are not a prominent feature on the wharves.

From Petit Cap we drove to our final stop overlooking the six-mile bridge that connects Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick. The coastline shifts from flat to hilly in Murray Corner, one of the few Anglophone communities in the French-speaking Acadian region of New Brunswick. I noticed that the boats at the dock had an additional deck stacked onto the stern of the boat with a net reel on the stern as well. Michel said that the current fishery in this area is a small drift net mackerel fishery which would end at the end of that week.

As we turned around to head back to Shediac, we met up with two fishermen – Stewart and Troy – who had just returned to Stewart’s boat which rested on stilts on the bank where they were repairing the propeller system. Michel introduced me as a staff person for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Stewart had a laundry list of questions and suggestions. He repeated the same questions Mario and Norbert had asked me earlier in the day: why doesn’t the Maine lobster industry have seasons? Why do Maine lobstermen fish with so many traps?

I took a deep breath and turned to Michel and laughed. “We were just talking about this on the way over here,” he explained. “I didn’t realize some of these things until talking with Annie. Their business model is very different.”

I explained to Stewart, as I did to all of the fishermen I met, that along most of the coast we have lost the ability to move among fisheries and hence lost economic diversity. The lobster industry is the only game in town, save for some small scale supplemental fisheries. He said that their story was similar in that area – snow crab, various bait fish, and lobster are the primary fisheries with limited seasons or quotas. I went on and explained that  less than a quarter of Maine lobstermen hold a federal permit that allows them the opportunity to lobster offshore. Those who do fish offshore need a larger boat, bigger gear, with more crew and have a much higher level of financial investment in their business. I explained that most of our lobstermen must buy their own health insurance and that healthcare is very expensive. I explained that there is no system in Maine like the Canadian Employment Insurance program which supports Canadian fishermen at times when they are not fishing.

I continued, “All of that said, I do know people who would be interested in making substantive changes to the way we manage the fishery in Maine, but it’s a big state with a lot of different operations and scales of fishing.” As I walked away I thought about the debate that New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are having over the legal carapace size. New Brunswick is advocating for the legal minimum measure to go up to 77 mm while PEI is advocating for the gauge to remain at 72 mm, claiming strong market for their “canner” lobsters. Their neighbors to the east in Cape Breton, by comparison, land an 81 mm carapace lobster. Maine’s minimum size 3 ¼ inches is about 82.5 mm.

Murray Harbor, New Brunswick lobster boats rigged for mackerel fishery. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

Murray Harbor, New Brunswick lobster boats rigged for mackerel fishery. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

We left Murray Corner and made our way back to Shediac where I said goodbye to Michel at the MFU office as he prepared for a meeting with some of his fishermen. I went north to Richibucto where I was staying in a little mom and pop cottage. I walked over to the wharf and tried my rusty high school French on a group of fishermen who had just returned with similar net reels, only these were for the gaspereau – alewife – fishery. I learned that the fish were being smoked and shipped to Haiti. One fisherman told me that since the earthquake in Haiti resulted in less electricity and more difficulty in storing food, demand for smoked gaspereau has gone up because they keep better than herring.

The next morning I drove north on Route 134, veering off in Saint-Louis de Kent through Kouchibouguac National Park’s tree-lined road. Abruptly the trees stopped just as soon as I exited the eastern part of the park and I saw a foggy coastline dotted with modest homes, a small diner and a large Catholic church. I had made it to Pointe-Sapin for my appointment to meet Fernand Gaudet and Miguelle Goguen at Crown Seafood, but I was early so I went to find the wharf.

Storage lockers, a boat launch, two concentric L-shaped piers, and another pier with the fish co-op were protected by a series of granite breakwaters. I walked around and looked at the boats, noticing again these stacked decks and net reels. I came across a group of fishermen – two on the boat removing nets, two standing at the wharf and another carrying nets to a pile ready to load on the truck. We chatted for a while in French until I told them I worked for “l’association des pêcheurs du homard de Maine.” They laughed and told me my French was fine but we could chat in English. Their questions were similar to those I had heard from many of those fishermen I spoke with along the Northumberland Strait.

I left the wharf and headed over to Crown Seafood. A simple sign on the main road welcomed me down the driveway past a parking lot full of cars, to a white, non-descript building. Last summer I had the opportunity to tour Paturel International, a massive processing facility operated by East Coast Seafood on Deer Island, New Brunswick. Where Paturel has incredible machinery and computer-operated systems, Crown is a small handpick facility made up of a couple of different rooms for prepping, cooking, picking packaging and freezing with only 175 employees at the peak of their May to January processing season.

Just inside, I met Fernand Gaudet and Miguelle Goguen. Fernand explained that his family owned Westmoreland Fisheries in Cap-Pelé up until three years ago when they sold those operations and maintained the smallest plant, Crown Seafoods in Pointe-Sapin. Miguelle has been with the business for about seven years and came to it circuitously as a business student. She has found her passion in seafood and management. Known for their consistent level of high quality, Crown’s products are in high demand in overseas markets.

On the day I visited, they were updating the plant with new machinery for removing the intestinal tract from the tail and new scale system – technologies that will provide increased efficiency in the hand pick operation. Miguelle lead me around the floor where they were picking canners. These small lobsters have great meat yield, but they are tiny (roughly 2.8 inch carapace length) and have become less desirable in recent years in the marketplace. Processors have to pick more canners to yield a pound of meat. The market is also looking for larger lobsters to compete in the tail market; the food service sector tends to favor larger tails, thus the competition between Homarus americanus and the various warm water lobster tails.

Following the plant tour, I headed south again for Jean Lavallée’s product quality and handling session at the Elsipogtog First Nation. Lavallée leads the training and is both scientist and standup comedian as he explains the biology of a lobster as it pertains to the quality of the animal during hauling, on board the vessel, in storage at the wharf or shoreside and in shipment. I have attended and delivered several product quality trainings over the last couple of years as part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, but Lavallée’s deep knowledge of the biology of the lobster made this training particularly interesting and fun.

This trip which started out as a short training in Elsipogtog turned into something much greater. I had the opportunity to talk with several different members of the industry chatting with fishermen around the coast, processors, plant workers, a biologist and a member of the provincial government. And every person I met had the same concerns and the same curiosity and anxiety for the coming season. Will it be like last year? Where do you think the market is headed? What changes can we make to try and improve and reposition our product? These are not simple questions, nor are the solutions, nor will change come easy to this industry. Every person I met and every conversation that I had reinforced the importance of this trip at this particular point in time: we all have to be better at communicating with each other, both with our fellow lobstermen and lobster businesses in the State of Maine and with our colleagues in the Maritimes. Having these important conversations to improve the understanding of our respective fisheries and our ways of life are critically important to the success and long term sustainability of the lobster industry and the communities that depend on it.