Guest Column: News from the Maritimes

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2011

It is unlikely that there has been a period in the history of the lobster fishery in both Canada and the United States when there has been more coordinated activity focused on improving returns to all of those who earn a living harvesting, processing and shipping Homarus americanus. This column will focus on what is happening north of the 49th parallel in the five Eastern Canadian provinces that engage in lobster harvesting, processing and live shipping.

Almost two years ago the Lobster Council of Canada was formed to bring all parts of the fishery together to work on the many issues facing the industry and find ways to co-operate and improve financial performance for all in the value chain.

The challenges range from things we cannot control (the return to a strong Canadian dollar, the cost of fuel and bait, shortage of labor, need for eco-certification and traceability) to those that we can (amount of lobster landed, quality of the product, method of organizing and setting shore prices and co-operation in marketing and promotion). “The Long Term Value Strategy for Canadian Lobster,” released in October, 2010, postulated that while marketing and promotion are important, it is equally vital that issues of marketability be addressed (quality grading, shore price setting, industry structure and timing of landings).

As is typical of Canadians we do very little until a topic has been studied and analyzed ad nauseum. Add in the fact that we have five very different provinces, with different traditional products and markets (canner or 250-400 gram lobster from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, jumbos from the Bay of Fundy, live and processed product, domestic and foreign markets, two official languages) attempting to work together in synchronicity in a complex, historical fishery and one can better appreciate the scope of the challenge we face.

The Lobster Council is funded by the five Eastern provinces involved in lobster production and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It has been clear that funding of the council must evolve to being supported by the lobster industry itself so there have been extensive meetings and consultations over the past year to try to find a way to equally share this funding burden across the industry. The solution finding favor is one based on extracting one cent for every pound of lobster landed in Canada, remitted by the first buyer in each province and shared between the buyer and the harvester. Eventual secondary buyers like processors and live shippers will share the cost with the first buyer.

This concept, the “one cent investment,” will take time to develop because all stakeholders must understand the mechanism and the requirement for collection – both a tall order in an industry that is under pressure from slow markets in Europe and the United States and a strong Canadian dollar. However, harvesters and processors/live shippers realize that in times of plenty and times of challenge there must be a group that takes into account the needs of the entire industry. That is what we are doing with the Lobster Council. To date, the majority of harvesters in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are supportive of the “one cent investment” while their colleagues on PEI, Newfoundland and Quebec still working through their outreach plans.

In addition, the Lobster Council is busy with many industry-focused projects. In response to market requirements, the first phase of a lobster traceability study has just been released focused on an analysis of trap-to-plate traceability. The industry is well on the way to establishing a full traceability system. The next phase involves review of software and electronic hardware. The Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters is also working on a traceability program with more of a marketing angle and is just finishing up a pilot project, tagging lobster with the “Thisfish” label. In this program (also in use on the west coast with salmon and other species) lobster are tagged with individual tags that, when inputted online, link the consumer to the harvesters’ Web site which provides information about port of landing, the harvesters, crew, vessel, time/date of catch, etc.

The next phase toward implementing the “Long-term Value Strategy for Canadian Lobster” will begin in January when industry working groups begin analyzing quality grading, shore price setting and branding/promotion themes. These groups will review the recommendations from the report and, working with experts in these fields and with an eye to practical realities, develop a plan for implementation. Extensive industry communication and engagement will be required to test the willingness of the industry to take steps required to truly embrace change and collaboration.

Along with our neighbors in Maine, landings of Homarus americanus have never been higher (2010 Maine landings at 94 million pounds and Canadian landings at 125 million pounds). In most areas we are blessed with a landings bounty that presents us with an incredible opportunity.  We all know that hundreds of years of catching and selling lobster have put us in the place we stand today but it is clear in everyone’s mind (even those who refuse to admit it) that we must evolve our thinking to deal with the realities of today’s market and industry. To achieve real change and success in the future we need genuine leadership, courage and a willingness to make the hard decisions needed. I believe that time is now and I look forward to working together in 2012 and beyond.