nb-lobster-fishermen-escuminac

Lobster with a carapace smaller than 72 mm caught in the Northumberland Strait this fall will have to be thrown back. (CBC)

The minimum size for a legally-caught lobster in Northumberland Strait will increase only slightly for the 2013 fall season, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield confirmed on Monday.

The minimum carapace will increase to 72 mm this year, up from 71 mm in 2012.

This change for the western half of the strait between New Brunswick, P.E.I. and a small section of Nova Scotia, known as Lobster Fishing Area 25, was first announced in March 2011.

Fishermen in New Brunswick have been lobbying for a larger minimum carapace size, increasing it to 77 mm by 2015.

They argue they can get better prices for the larger lobster, which they say they need to stay in business.

But P.E.I. fishermen say they have good markets for the smaller ones, and have lobbied against the New Brunswick proposal.

The head of the Maritime Fishermen's Union in New Brunswick says he is frustrated by the minimal change.

"It's very disappointing and I don't know what the season is going to give. There are no changes from last summer," said executive secretary Christian Brun.

Frustrations mounting

He said New Brunswick fishermen, who make up the majority of harvesters in the fishing zone, came up with the idea to increase the size of lobster caught after last summer's disastrous season.

Bigger lobster is what the people who buy their product want and the federal government's refusal to allow the change will make it difficult for the fishermen to stay in business, Brun said.

"There are frustrations and I believe it is mounting. I believe every year they are becoming more and more frustrated," he said.

Last summer saw about two weeks of protests and blockades by eastern New Brunswick fishermen over low prices.

The fishermen were protesting outside processing plants after learning the plants were processing cheap American lobster. Processors won a court-ordered injunction to keep the protesting fishermen off their property.

A deal was finally struck that would see the fishermen eligible for an extra 50 cents per pound, with the processing plants and the Maritime Fishermen's Union each paying 25 cents. The deal meant processors would pay $3 a pound for canners and $3.50 for market lobster.

Brun says he has no idea how the federal government expects anything to change this summer.

Future size limits undecided

He is also disappointed Ashfield deferred any decision on carapace size for future seasons.

"I believe harvesters are going to want to get accountability around those that were supposed to take this decision," Brun said. "I don't know what they're going to choose to do."

The fall lobster season in the zone in question is scheduled to start on Aug. 9.

Ashfield said he had been hoping an industry-driven consensus on the minimum legal size for lobster could be reached. "The lack of agreement has reluctantly required me to make a decision in order for the season to open as planned," he said in the statement.

"The department will review the findings of the independent Maritime lobster panel set up by the provincial governments of P.E.I., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before any future changes on carapace size are taken for the 2014 fishery or beyond," Ashfield said.

P.E.I.'s fisheries minister pleased

P.E.I.'s Minister of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Rural Development Ron MacKinley is pleased with the decision.

"If it had went to 77 mm and then on to 81 mm in the next few years, that could have been devastating to us," said MacKinley.

"That would have wiped out our whole canner industry which our processors had eluded to at the meetings had developed a lot of niche markets for that particular size lobsters."

Canner lobsters are the backbone of the island's fishery, creating jobs and economic spinoffs in the rural communities, he said.

"This way, we stay at where we want to be, so we're happy with it," said MacKinley, who had presented the province's position on the issue to Ashfield and the Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

P.E.I.'s legislative assembly had also passed a unanimous resolution opposing any change to the carapace size beyond 72 mm.

The Maritime Fishermen's Union represents more than 1,300 owner-operator fish harvesters with small businesses actively fishing in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.