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The small change that meant big losses for lobstermen

A sixteenth of an inch doesn't seem like much. But it added up to a whole lot for Nova Scotia lobstermen in December 1989. 

Americans upped the minimum allowable size of lobster for import in 1989

A compromised lobster catch

33 years ago
Duration 1:29
The U.S. adjusts the size of lobsters it will accept for import, and that leaves a lot of lobstermen in the lurch.

A sixteenth of an inch doesn't seem like much. But it added up to a whole lot for Nova Scotia lobstermen in December 1989. 

A new law had been passed in the United States that increased the minimum allowable size of lobsters for import, by that seemingly insignificant margin.

The CBC camera showed a live lobster being measured using a specialized device. 

But as Halifax reporter Paul Barr explained, the difference was anything but insignificant.

"That might not sound like much of a change to a non-fisherman," he explained. "But in reality, it means as much as a quarter-pound increase in weight."

More lobsters left behind

"A sixteenth of an inch, in that market lobster, represents probably 15 to 20 per cent of our market catch," said fisherman Eric Hemphill.

That meant that fishermen were spending time catching lobsters they couldn't export.

Fisherman Eric Hemphill put it in more specific terms, saying that the limit would affect "15 to 20 per cent of our market catch."

That could translate into losses of up to $30 million for lobstermen, said Barr.

"The Americans demanded the increase to conserve their lobster stocks," he added.

'A false way to go'

A lobster boat sails past a dock piled high with traps. (1st Edition/CBC Archives)

But Canadians in the lobster business didn't quite understand that reasoning.

"Trying to base this import ban on conservation is a false way to go," said Ron Bulmer of the Fisheries Council of Canada.

"They have been increasing carapace length now for two years, and there was nothing we could identify that said our lobster to the U.S. was damaging their conservation." 

According to a Globe and Mail story published the same day this report aired, the new law brought the allowable size of lobsters imported from Canada into alignment with the U.S.

"For several years, Maine lobster fishermen have complained that imports of Canadian lobster, smaller than those permitted to be caught by U.S. fishermen, depress the New England market."

In May 1990, the paper reported that a five-member panel set up under the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement ruled that the U.S. size ban was a "valid conservation measure."

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