Seafood processors in northern Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are feeling the pinch of growing labour shortages just as the spring lobster season sets to open in the Northumberland Strait and southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Fish plants have increasingly relied on temporary foreign workers to fill those gaps, but new rules announced by Ottawa last year are curtailing the number allowed.

Temporary foreign workers can now only represent 30 per cent of a company's labour force in low wage industries, a proportion that is mandated to drop again in the coming years.

It could mean some regional plants won't have the capacity to process all that is caught, and will be forced to tell fishermen to land less.

The last couple of years have already seen some plants impose "boat quotas," but the foreign worker restrictions could exacerbate the processing capacity problems, said Jerry Amirault, who speaks for the Lobster Processors' Association.

North Nova Seafoods in Caribou is switching its shrimp processing equipment to lobster processing machinery in anticipation of opening day in a couple of weeks.

Last year, 75 of North Nova's 157 employees were temporary foreign workers. But under the new restrictions, the company can hire just 47 foreign workers this season.

Hard work, long hours

North Nova general manager Mike Duffy says they've tried to hire more local people, but with little success.

The industry acknowledges the work is hard, there can be long hours some days, and says it's not for everyone.

North Nova pays about $11 an hour. Duffy says they'd like to pay more, but margins are too tight and prices are determined by large American companies.

The federal government introduced a slew of new rules last year, concerned that some sectors where relying too heavily on foreign workers at the expense of Canadians looking for jobs.

According to Employment and Social Development Canada, there is a pool of workers receiving employment insurance benefits who are qualified for work in seafood processing.

The department issued the following figures:

  • In Nova Scotia, 1,432 of people collecting employment insurance in any month of 2013 had fish plant experience. During that time, there was an overall total of 3,034 temporary foreign worker positions approved in Nova Scotia, with 112 related to fish plant work.
  • In New Brunswick, 2,127 of people collecting employment insurance in any month of 2013 had fish plant experience. During that time, there was an overall total of 1,711 temporary foreign worker positions approved in New Brunswick, with 586 related to fish plant work.
  • In Prince Edward Island, 221 of people collecting employment insurance in any month of 2013 had fish plant experience. During that time, there was an overall total of 876 temporary foreign worker positions approved in 2013, with 362 related to fish plant work. 

Maritime seafood processors have countered that they should be treated like the agriculture industry.

Farmers are able to hire seasonal workers when they can't find local labour, a practice the federal government did not touch when it reformed the temporary foreign worker program.