Lobster and crab fishermen in Quebec 'out of options' as more zones closed off

Fishermen and processing plants in the Gaspé are facing another setback in their season after reported sightings of North Atlantic Right Whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence triggered the closure of more fishing zones.

Lobster prices expected to rise as fisherman struggle with early end to season

Lobster cages along the Gaspé coast will have to be taken out of the water as of 4 p.m. on Friday, three weeks before the end of the season. (John Robertson/CBC)

Fishermen on the Gaspé coast, already facing a difficult season with the closure of several crab fishing zones last month, will now have to lift their lobster cages out of the water weeks before the end of the season.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced on Monday it was closing 10 zones to lobster fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in response to reported sightings of North Atlantic Right Whales.

Fishermen have until Friday to remove their gear and will have to stay inland for the next two weeks until DFO decides if it will re-open fishing for the final seven days of the season.

"I don't know how we're going to get out of this one," said O'Neil Cloutier, the general manager of the professional fishermen's association of southern Gaspé.

Cloutier said the industry did its best to work with the ministry to find solutions to the string of right whale deaths reported in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.

Thirteen whales were reported dead in Canadian waters — two entangled in ropes connected to buoys and cages from snow crab traps— according to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

That lead to stricter regulations for ships travelling in these zones.

The 2017 summer was a historically deadly one for the endangered north Atlantic right whale. (Stephan Savoia/Canadian Press)

But Cloutier said closing fishing zones along the coast is excessive, and will have zero impact on the whale population.

"We are affected by this, even if we fully know that we will never see a whale in these zones," Cloutier said.

Lobster fishing is carried out within a few kilometres of the coastline, he said, nowhere near any of the whale sightings.

"We shouldn't have been involved in this situation because it's not lobster vessels who were responsible for the unfortunate deaths of these whales."

Fisheries and Oceans has given fishermen until Friday at 4 p.m. ET to leave the following fishing zones: GV32, GV33, GV34, GV35, GX32, GX33, GX34, GW32, GW33 and GW34. 

While certain crab fishermen had diverted to these zones to try to make up for their losses, lobster fishermen in Gaspé are not allowed to set their traps in neighbouring areas.

"We are confined in these sub-zones, we can't go elsewhere," said Cloutier, seeing the moratorium as an unofficial "ban on all fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence."

Ripple effect on processing plants

The closures come in the wake of an already difficult season for meat processing plants.

Bill Sheehan, who owns a lobster and crab processing plant in Ste-Thérèse-de-Gaspé, said he was already operating only two days a week after crab fishing zones were shut down.

Without Gaspé lobster, his production will drop to 50 per cent of its normal rate.

''I don't know what we're gonna do. We're pretty much out of solutions," Sheehan said.

He estimates the industry will lose out on a million pounds of snow crab, leaving plant workers in limbo. He has yet to see any sort of compensation plan from the federal government to make up for his own losses.

"It puts a lot of pressure on everyone," Sheehan said, describing the general mood on the coast as "defeated."

With less lobsters on the market, and growing demand ahead of Father's Day and the beginning of summer, Sheehan expects the prices to rise substantially over the coming weeks.

Minister open to fall season

The closures come after negotiations failed between Ottawa and fishermen's associations, who were willing put in place 24-hour surveillance to ensure vessels stayed with a maximum distance from the coastline.

The MNA for the Gaspé riding, Gaétan Lelièvre, said hundreds of workers will now be affected "because Ottawa refused to hear them out."

"What is deplorable is we're applying this measure wall-to-wall, and it isn't adapted to the local reality," said Lelièvre, who is calling for a compensation program for those affected by the closures. 

The fisheries department told CBC in an e-mail that it understands "the very real impacts that these measures will have on fish harvesters and plant workers, and in particular on EI benefits," and said the government was working to address that issue.

Lobster fishermen haul in their catch in L'Anse-à-Beaufils, one of the landings affected by the closures announced by DFO on Monday. (Claude Côté/Radio-Canada)

During a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic Leblanc said he was open to the possibility of re-opening fishing season in the fall.

"If they have to take out their cages this week, we will try, I hope, to find a way to replace these days in the fall," Leblanc said. 

He also said he is aware of the impact on workers and said he wants to work with the provinces and the industry to help "the most vulnerable."

With files from Quebec AM, Claude Rivest and Radio-Canada