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Maine and Canadian Lobstermen Plagued by Same Supply and Demand Issues
08/08/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The lobster season on the Acadian coast of New Brunswick, along the Northumberland Strait, opens tomorrow. Canadian fishermen spent the days leading up to the beginning of last year's season angrily protesting the import of excess, soft-shell lobster from Maine that drove down local prices. There's been none of that acrimony in the run-up to this season. But as Jay Field reports in his final installment of this week's four-part series, lobstermen in the Town of Cap Pele, New Brunswick are struggling with same supply and demand problems effecting fishermen up and down the Maine coast.

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Gilles Landry

Cap Pele, New Brunswick lobsterman Gilles Landry gets his boat ready for the new season.

Every summer, the fishermen and their families gather on the wharf in Cap Pele, just before lobster season begins in this narrow stretch of water between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The local Catholic priest says Mass, blessing the men and their vessles - wider, more muscular lobster boats than most of the ones you see in Maine. The priest gives each fisherman a token as the service ends, a symbol of the bendiction that's just taken place.

"Sometime he'll give you a cross. Sometime he'll give you a medal. You get all kinds of stuff," says Gilles Landry. Landry has some of the keepsakes he got years ago tacked up above the peeling, discolored wooden instrument panel in the cabin of his boat. There's a meditation written in French and a black-and-white photo of an elder priest in black clerical clothing and white collar.

Jay Field: "Do you keep it there for a reason?"

Gilles Landry: "Yeah, just keep it there. It's a humble way of saying that we like having them with us when we fish."

Spiritual assistance, comforting as it may be, hasn't helped Landry and the other fishermen on this wharf defy the supply and demand dynamics that have made lobster fishing in Maine so tough in the last few years. The season begins in a few weeks and Landry, wrench in hand, fiddles with the 300-horsepower Caterpillar engine that powers his boat.

"You start from the stern of the boat and you go up right to the nose of the boat and you check everything out," he says. "The two first weeks are important. You need those two first weeks. It's half of our catch for the season."

Lobster fishing works differently in Canada. Maine lobstermen can go out year round. The waters off the Atlantic Maritimes and Ouebec are divided into 44 different fishing zones, each with its own, mostly springtime schedule. For many years, the systems in the two different countries unintentionally complimented each other. Canadian fishermen brought in more lobsters when the catch here was lighter and vice versa.

But landings in Canada have surged in recent years, just as they have in Maine. "You flood your market, the price is going to go down. So that's what's happening right now," says Alfred LeBlanc, who owns the next boat over.

LeBlanc says fishermen in and around Cap Pele aren't bringing in enough money to make a profit and pay for bait, fuel and boat maintence. Many in the industry in Maine are quick to note that various parts of the lobster fishery in Canada are subsidized by the goverment. Fishermen, for example, are able to collect unemployment from November through April.

But LeBlanc says that's only fair. "I mean, if I could fish year round like in Maine, I wouldn't need unemployment."

LeBlanc and Gilles Landry were among the fishermen who blocked Maine's oversupply of soft-shell lobster from arriving at nearby processing plants last August.

"It's like everybody else, you're there to make a living. And when it comes up to the very end, and you see yourself going into a hole, you say, 'Wow. I need to do something.'"

But a year later, the price of lobster here is still low, and Landry and many other fishermen are frustrated. Back in the spring, more than 2,000 fishermen in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec tied up their boats for a week in protest. LeBlanc says it typically takes two weeks for them to get a dealer to quote a price for their catch.

"You have to set a price - global. Hey, business is business," he says. "You put it down to $1.75, we'll buy. Put it up to $2.75 - sorry we don't need it. What are you going to do with it?"

The Maritime Provinces have put together an independent panel that's investigating what factors are influencing the price of lobster. It's due to report its findings in the fall.

Photo:  Jay Field


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