Lobster industry needs to look ahead, move on from the past
In this instalment of her series ROUGH WATERS that is running in the Yarmouth Vanguard, associate editor TINA COMEAU speaks with members of the LFA 34 Management Board for some of their reflections on the lobster industry. In recent years low lobster prices have dominated the headlines and the discussions on wharfs in the region.
Members of the LFA 34 Management Board – Jeff d’Entremont, Cory Nickerson, Robert Harris, Bernie Berry and Robert Hines – were recently asked for their reflections on the lobster industry.TINA COMEAU PHOTO
By Tina Comeau
Many of us are still in bed as the engines roar to life from their restless sleep.
Lights flicker as the lobster vessels bob up and down, dancing in harmony – or in a conflicted tango – with the ocean as they make their way out of their home ports.
Back home in our beds we may toss and turn on our pillows, but it’s nothing compared to being tossed around on the waves as the smell of bait permeates the air.
Advances in technology have made the work easier, but it’s still back-breaking.
And then there’s the uncertainty.
What will be pulled up in that 20-pot trawl?
Will the catch be a good one?
Will the trip be worthwhile?
Because if there’s wind in the forecast a fishing crew might not get back on the water for two or three days, and that’s if they’re lucky – at this time of the year the time-frame between trips is at the mercy of the weather.
Fishermen are familiar with the stories of men getting snarled in rope and hauled overboard. Heck, many of them have probably been one of those men.
And all for what? To catch a lobster that at the start of this season they were only getting paid $3 a pound for, but a consumer in a fancy restaurant somewhere may shell out $40 to eat.
So then why do it?
You probably need to be a fisherman to understand. Yes, when they slice their finger by accident they bleed blood, but for as long as most fishermen can remember they’ve had salt water running through their veins.
It’s what they do.
For some, it’s all they’ve known.
And it’s not only important to them, but to all of us.
We talk about the ferry. The ferry. The ferry.
And while everyone agrees – fishermen included – that a resumption of ferry service is of vital importance to our economy, make no mistake it is still lobster fishing that keeps this region afloat.
It is still an industry that employs thousands of people, regardless of the fact that for many the heyday of the lobster fishery (and other fisheries) may seem long gone. For some, going fishing just to break even when higher expenses are coupled with lower prices has caused them to throw in the towel.
Yet with every new season, new fishermen are still stepping onto the decks of boats, choosing this as their livelihood. And old fishermen aren’t ready to give up fishing just yet.
Is there a future in fishing? You can bet it’s a question all fishermen are asking themselves.
It’s a question on the minds of many.
“There’s no future in fishing – I get so discouraged when I hear people say that,” says lobster fisherman Robert Hines. A future – and the word opportunity can be intermingled here, he says – is what you create. It is Hines’ opinion that the industry has an obligation – yes, a responsibility – to ensure that there will be a fishery in the future for the youth.
He says this involves looking at suggestions for the betterment of the industry and not being solely concerned about what it means to you as an individual today, but rather what the impact of a collective effort moving forward might mean to the industry.
“We need to put our own self interest or personal gain aside,” he says.
Instead of dwelling on yesterday’s problems, look ahead to tomorrow’s solutions.
“People have to see what the bigger picture is,” he says.
In the fishery there is often a ‘me’ mentality versus a ‘we’ solution.
Fishermen will accept change to a certain extent; after all, unlike generations of fishermen before them they now fish in fibreglass boats with hydraulic haulers and wire traps. But there is a difference between change and risk, and when being asked to take a risk, fishermen often want it to come gift wrapped with a guarantee. And that guarantee usually translates into price.
This was evident last fall when licence holders gathered to vote on a two-year pilot proposal to reduce the number of lobster traps being fished – a proposal studied and put forward by the LFA 34 Management Board. The majority of licence holders rejected the proposal, which was aimed at curbing the lobster glut, reducing boat expenses and increasing product quality. But many fishermen were skeptical. And they were worried about how it might affect their bottom line.
This isn’t to suggest that fishermen don’t have a right to be worried about suggestions put forth to them, but what was lacking in the room that day was alternatives being put forward. Instead, many just said no without offering up something else to say yes to.
In other words, stick with the status quo.
The problem, however, is the status quo hasn’t been working so well in the past few years.
But, in the case of the LFA 34 Management Board, to move forward with new ideas, new methods, you need to have agreement.
And more often than not agreement is hard to come by.
“You’ve got 986 guys with probably 986 answers to the problem,” says lobster fisherman Cory Nickerson, vice-chair of the management board, as he points to the number of licences in lobster fishing area 34.
He says many will point to price as the only problem. And it is a problem, he says.
But another question to be asked is are fishermen contributing to that problem?
When the price is low, many say the answer to overcome this is to catch more lobsters.
To fish harder.
Nickerson feels that’s the issue that people should be focusing on – the fact that there is a lot of lobster being landed, largely due to increased effort.
In Maine lobster fishermen are reported to have landed a record catch in 2012. The problem is, this came on the heels of a record catch in 2011. Maine’s catch of roughly 123 million pounds of lobster in 2012 was 18 million more than had been landed the previous year.
Lobster fisherman Robert Harris says he can remember when LFA 34, the fishing district off of Yarmouth County that includes other parts of southwestern Nova Scotia, was the main show.
“In my father’s time when 34 opened you were the kingpin. Digby was closed. Maine was shutting down, down shore they weren’t catching anything so everyone was waiting for you,” he says. “But now it’s no longer that way and we’re not adjusting to it.”
Which goes back to what Nickerson says about the quantity of lobster and what he sees as a challenge facing the industry.
“There is too much volume of lobster landed in the world and it’s affecting the price,” he says. He thinks the industry should be looking at tweaking the volume or shifting it around.
At the start of this past lobster season, buyers cited the volume of lobster as a reason for the low price.
Some fishermen buy it.
But to ignore it as an issue hurts the industry more than it helps, suggests Nickerson.
“To an outside person looking in, lobsters are everywhere. We can catch them all. There are too many,” he says. “But that’s not so. There are a lot of lobsters but every year that goes by with a low price it puts more pressure and more pressure.”
More pressure to fish harder.
More pressure to make ends meet.
More pressure to keep up with expenses.
More pressure to seek work elsewhere.
Many fishermen feel defeated by having to fish for a low price year after year.
On the wharfs some will even go so far as to suggest fishermen have “sucker” written across their foreheads. If they’re willing at the start of the season to fish for a $3-a-pound lobster then why not to expect to be paid that?
Which is why for some the pull of the ocean is falling victim to the lure of the west.
In past years fishermen would wait until the lobster season ended before seeking work in places like Alberta, now you see some fishermen heading west while the season is still underway. They’re trading in a job on a boat for a job in an oil patch.
This is problematic on many fronts.
It separates families over long distances.
It makes it harder for captains to find qualified crew.
“It does hurt,” says fisherman Jeff d’Entremont, chair of the management board. “Right now there are a lot of guys finding it hard to find hired help, especially good hired help.”
And, in the opinion on Robert Hines, it hurts in another way because it places an unrealistic expectation on the lobster industry.
“I think it hurts in that it is creating an unleveled playing field as far as people’s expectations that the lobster industry needs to compete with the oil industry in Alberta,” he says. “You can do that but you’re probably not going to like the design of the fishery when it gets there.”
Is there a future in the fishery? Many fishermen believe there is – or at least they hope there is. Otherwise, why would they stick around?
“We’re in it for the long haul. We’ve all got kids,” says Jeff d’Entremont, who says if people have ideas and suggestions on how to improve things in the industry, by all means, bring them forward.
Fisherman Bernie Berry believes what is needed is for the industry to collectively come up with a long-range plan for where it sees itself in 10 to 20 years, while at the same time, also setting shorter goals for the next few years.
“This industry keeps the whole region together and how we prosper is how all communities prosper,” he says.
Which goes back to the future that Robert Hines envisions – one in which new generations of fishermen will still be able to follow in the boots of past generations.
“We’re stuck in this reactive mindset all of the time,” he says, when instead the industry should be proactive, not reactive.
Attitudes have to change, he says.
“There is no future in the fishery, again I get so discouraged when I hear people say that because it gives people the opportunity to dispose of it without being blamed for giving it away when there is no youth here to take it,” he says. “If there is no youth left it’s because we’re not creating an opportunity for them to stay.”
Adds Cory Nickerson, “Is the price bad? Yes. Is it tough? Yes. But it’s still a damn good living.”