Once-idle shipyard cashes in on crab boat market
'If we had more space, we would employ more people,' says boatbuilder Jean-Pierre Robichaud
Three years ago, Guillaume Hall was working in the oil patch in Fort McMurray, Alta., one of the hundreds of New Brunswickers who had gone west for work.
He lived in spartan accommodations and shuffled onto a bus for the long ride to and from the job site.
Today he's building boats five minutes from where he grew up, in the Caraquet area of northeast New Brunswick.
"You're at home every day," Hall said. "I go eat at noon at home. Now I have a brand new kid. So it's nice to be at home with him and my girlfriend. … I'm closer to family. It doesn't take a bus trip to get home. Five minutes and I'm at home. It's great."
Hall is one of about 150 people working for several boatbuilding and repair companies operating at the New Brunswick Naval Centre in Bas-Caraquet.
The shipyard was created by two municipal governments in 2014, funded by the province and then bailed out in 2016, and subsidized again this week with $10 million from Ottawa.
That level of public spending has been controversial.
But the owners of the boat-building companies operating at the yard say they're creating jobs and cashing in on a booming market for boat construction and repair, something that would have been impossible without the centre.
"It certainly would have been difficult for us to start," says Jean-Pierre Robichaud of Atlantic Boat Builders, where Hall is working.
"The Centre Naval definitely gave us some help. It gave us a facility to start. Now we need to expand. We were a victim of our own success. So we have to expand and we know the Centre Naval is there for us."
Atlantic Boat Building has 36 employees working two shifts, days and nights and on weekends, year-round.
Hall and other workers are building crab fishing boats using a design from France. One of the new boats, the Crabbin Assassin, is almost finished. Built for a Nova Scotia fishermen, it looks more like a stealth military vessel than a crab boat.
"They have a unique design when it comes to fuel savings, stability, and speed, and you get to go faster with a smaller engine," Robichaud says. "You save fuel, so more money in the pockets of the fishermen."
Two boats like the Crabbin Assassin are already fishing and five more are on order. Atlantic Boat Builders has the exclusive North American rights to the design.
"If we had more space, we would employ more people," Robichaud said. "It's all year, steady."
The previous Progressive Conservative government announced the relaunch of the dormant shipyard in 2014.
"New Brunswick was lacking a facility to service the boatbuilding industry and the repair industry on the marine side," says Jacques Dugas, whose manufacturing company, the Tank Shop, is now one of the shipyard tenants.
Dugas was one of the instigators of the revival. He cited a KPMG study that showed there was a market for boatbuilding and repairs in the area, including from government contracts.
"You cannot get your share if you don't have the equipment," he said, "if you don't have the marine slip, if you don't have the big travel lift. So we're making this happen."
The Town of Caraquet and the neighbouring Village of Bas-Caraquet, where the yard is located, set up a company to run the centre. But that proved to be a near-fatal error.
Because of borrowing restrictions, the two municipalities were unable to get the financing needed for their $4 million contribution to infrastructure upgrades for the anchor tenant, Groupe Océan, a Quebec shipping company.
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The site shut down until the province bought the yard in 2016. The bailout was forecast to cost taxpayers $38 million, though higher lease payments from Océan are expected to reduce that.
Océan's work on its floating drydock is moving ahead. Huge metal segments of it sit in the corner of the yard, near where the local companies are doing their boat work.
A new challenge
The latest challenge is paradoxical in a high-unemployment area.
"It's very hard to find people to work, to find young people," says René Friolet, whose company Friolet Services Maritime employs 28 people renovating boats at the yard.
There are fewer and fewer young people in the area, and many of those who are there don't have the skills required.
"It's a matter of training them, and when they're trained, they leave and they go elsewhere," Friolet says. "It's very hard. That's the main challenge we have right now."
"The exodus to the oil patch was quite a difficult period for us," he said. "I don't know if I should thank God or not, but they're coming back. That allows us to have, even here, a day shift and a night shift, which was unthinkable three years ago, because the men were not there."
The companies have also been hiring more women as welders.
"I tried it and I just absolutely loved it," said Dale Robichaud. "I like being able to work in a team and also able to work alone."
Crab industry needs renovations
One reason for the high demand for boat renovations is a change in the crab market. Processors are demanding the crab be stored in refrigerated seawater, not in ice, before it's brought ashore.
That improves the quality, but many crab boats aren't big enough for the additional weight and volume — so they're having the back halves of the vessels widened.
"You couldn't imagine the enthusiasm of the industry to go toward that," he said. "It does represent a lot of jobs, fairly large contracts, and it's a plus to the market that the Centre Naval is supposed to service."
Donald Hébert, the foreman at another company at the centre, R.P. Pro-Fibre Ltd., said emotion plays a role: fishermen are sentimentally attached to their boats and would rather enlarge them than buy new ones.
"The guy who owns the boat is an old guy," Hébert said. "He's had it 30 years. He doesn't like change."
More subsidies this week
Taxpayer dollars continue to flow: this week the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency handed over $10 million to help pay for a U-wharf, which will make it easier to move vessels in and out of the water.
But Dugas said it's a worthwhile investment given the demand, and the jobs it will create ."A hundred and fifty jobs in northern New Brunswick — I don't know how many it represents in the south, but it is humungous here."
He said construction and repairs for the local fleet in the region alone are worth about 25 years of work at the yard, and that doesn't include other potential markets.
"We're looking at a great future. … We're going to get to that 250 jobs, once we have this site equipped to get our share from different markets we're not [now] even able to touch."