Three years ago when the Nova Scotia's fisheries minister started talking about lobster quality and branding, Peter Connors saw an opportunity.
Connors, president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen's Protective Association and a lobster fishing veteran of 50 years, knew the catches he and his colleges landed each year in Lobster Fishing Area (LFA) 32 were high quality.
For years fishermen in the area have stridently followed conservation efforts to boost egg production by marking large females caught and returning them to the water. There have been other efforts, too, such as minding the way they handle the lobsters to prevent bleeding or premature death.
These and other steps have helped the LFA's total catch double over the last 30 years, with most of it being high-quality, hard-shelled lobster.
"The lobster fishing, under this regime we have in place now, has prospered," said Connors.
So when provincial Fisheries Minister Keith Colwell started talking about ways to maximize the potential of the province's most famous crustacean, Connors saw it as a way to promote Eastern Shore lobster and their practices.
Following conversations, Colwell launched a quality-monitoring pilot project with Eastern Shore fishermen, aimed at studying what they have been doing while also monitoring quality along the value chain.
Tracking quality from catch to market
Special bands are used on the lobsters caught and they are followed all the way to market, with quality examined at each stop. Connors said preserving quality throughout the process is vital to ensure maximum value.
"These lobsters, after they come out of the water, spend a lot of time in transportation," he said.
"So how the lobster is prepared for transport and the condition it's kept in during transport is very important to mortality rate, I would say, and the quality of the lobster when it arrives at market."
Colwell gives much of the credit to what Eastern Shore fishermen were already doing, and he's hoping other lobster fishing areas decide to get involved (there are already expressions of interest, he said). The importance of the effort is underscored by a recent request from one major customer for a quality assurance system, said Colwell.
"It's going to make a big change in how we do business, especially with the emerging markets we have in Asia. The markets there are just insatiable to feed, but we have to supply them with guaranteed quality product that's consistent all the time."
Fishermen have been netting record catches and very strong prices recently. Making positive changes now, when the markets are strong, means there is a much better chance of sustaining those prices and demand for the long term, said Colwell.
The drive for quality was the motivator behind a lobster handling course the province unveiled this year. The course, right now only for lobster buyers, met a lot of resistance from the industry initially because it came out of nowhere.
'We recognize we need to bring good value'
Colwell acknowledged better consultation would have made things easier, but he said the government has learned its lesson. Buyers have a one-year grace period to take the course, which will become a condition of licence renewal, and the hope is other members of the industry will be willing to participate, too.
Stewart Lamont, managing director of Tangier Lobster Company, said it's in the best interest of everyone to participate if it means maintaining the high price points and growing demand for catches.
"We're all business persons — whether you're a fisher, an exporter, a processor, we're all business people in the end and we recognize we need to bring good value."