New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island lobster fishermen are locked in a dispute over a proposal to increase the minimum size of lobsters that can be caught in the Northumberland Strait.
New Brunswick fishermen are hoping to increase the minimum size of lobster that can be caught in Zone 25, which covers the waters between the two provinces, by five millimetres.
Gilles Theriault, a consultant who prepared a report for the New Brunswick lobster industry, anchored his argument for larger lobsters on the possibility of higher prices for fishermen.
The consultant said bigger lobsters would mean more money for fishermen in a time when many are struggling financially.
"The processors feel that they can do a better job selling their lobsters if it's a bigger-sized lobster than a small-sized lobster and hopefully with more markets for the bigger size will come better prices," Theriault said.
Lobsters can only be caught now if the carapace is a minimum of 72 mm, but New Brunswick is proposing to have that raised to 73 mm and then eventually up to 77 mm.
But the idea is not being unanimously embraced. Prince Edward Island fishermen are saying the size should stay the same and any changes could devastate the province’s industry.
The two sides presented their conflicting views to federal officials on Wednesday.
Theriault said Prince Edward Island is the last holdout when it comes to increasing the minimum size of lobsters that can be caught in the zone.
When the P.E.I. fishermen arrived to the Moncton meeting on Wednesday, they had the impression it was an informal discussion with the federal government.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has given Prince Edward Island fishermen two weeks to present a counter report on the proposal to increase the minimum size of lobsters that can be caught.
'This decision is being [made] to satisfy six processing plants in New Brunswick. Should we change our fishery to increase the bottom line of six processing plants in New Brunswick? Are they right and our plants are wrong.' — Lee Knox, P.E.I. fisherman
Prince Edward Island fishermen argue a change in a few millimetres could dramatically upend their industry.
Lee Knox said the P.E.I. industry is based on these smaller lobsters and the fishermen should not be forced to change to satisfy the demands of a few New Brunswick processors.
"We have markets for our cannner lobsters," he said.
"This decision is being [made] to satisfy six processing plants in New Brunswick. Should we change our fishery to increase the bottom line of six processing plants in New Brunswick? Are they right and our plants are wrong?"
P.E.I. Fisheries Minister Ron MacKinley said canner lobsters were worth more than $54 million last year and moving to a larger lobster would devastate the province’s industry.
Canada's Revenue Minister Gail Shea, a P.E.I. MP and former federal fisheries minister, said she also believes New Brunswick processors are behind this push for larger lobsters.
"My understanding is this is driven by the processing sector in New Brunswick. Here on P.E.I. our processors seem to have a lot of market for the current size, which is going to 72 millimetre, so the discussion around changing carapace size is not based on science. It's based on the market," she said.
Studying changes to season’s dates
The size of the lobster that can be caught in the Northumberland Strait is not the only issue that is currently being debated.
Fishermen in the two provinces are also discussing whether they should change the lobster season in Zone 25.
Area fishermen spend the summer months of August and September catching lobster. However, most other Maritime fishermen go out in the spring or fall when the water is cooler.
The New Brunswick consultant said the possible switch in dates could be another way to boost lobster prices.
Theriault said he thinks it's time to study whether starting earlier or going later could bring in better prices in the zone.
"We would really want to know what's there in May, what's there in June, what's there in July, what's the quality … and once we have all that information then we would be in a better position to make a decision," he said.
But the lobster fishermen in the zone aren't so sure about Theriault’s idea of swapping the dates of the season.
Arthur Carll, a Bouctouche lobster fisherman, said he does not believe the industry in southeastern New Brunswick would be viable if it opened earlier.
"In my area, it's not possible," he said.
"You hear the old people that fished for years before [in]
late July say there's no lobster."
Carl Allen, who fishes from Bas Cap-Pelé, said he’s also uncertain about whether there would be any benefit to moving the season.
"I'm not even sure, to be honest with you it's hard to peg. Like, what would be a true advantage to go one way or another? I mean, it's been this start date for a very long time," he said.
"A lot of fishermen are very comfortable with that start date."
P.E.I.’s Knox said he knows when the best time to catch lobster near the island.
"Our best quality of lobster is early August before they molt," he said.
While the fishermen are skeptical about the idea of changing the dates of the season, there is agreement on doing a study, which would determine any possible advantages of changing the season’s dates.