Fishermen in Eastern Quebec want season postponed to avoid COVID-19 outbreak in fishing villages

Crab and lobster fishermen in Eastern Quebec say the fishing season should be postponed to protect the health of fishermen, as well as the communities where they operate.

With crab and lobster season about to open, Quebec fishermen worry over cramped working conditions

The crab fishing season in Zone 16 A, off Anticosti Island, is set to open April 20, but some fishermen hope it will be postponed until the number of COVID-19 cases starts decreasing in Quebec. (Submitted by Chad O'Brien)

Leon Keats is set to go out to sea on April 20 to harvest crab in Zone 16A, off Anticosti Island.

But the fishing captain wonders how he can do his job while respecting public health guidelines to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and without endangering residents of Kegaska, the village on the Lower North Shore, where he docks his boat during the 14-week period.

"It's unsanitary, and it's impossible for us to live by the guidelines that Health Canada is asking us to respect right now," said Keats. "It's utterly impossible."

Keats and other fishermen in Eastern Quebec are asking Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to postpone the fishing season to ensure workers and residents of small fishing towns aren't unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19.

Kegaska, 425 kilometres east of Sept-Îles, is home to 100 full-time residents. 

During crab season, the population of the town doubles, with fishermen setting up shop at the local wharf and unloading their catches at the fish-processing plant at the end of the day.

"Having an influx of a hundred or more fishermen in one little confined marina, you cannot practise safe distancing," said Keats.

He is also concerned for the health of fishermen, who are, on average, over the age of 50 and won't have an isolated place to clean up and rest.

"They are more susceptible to COVID-19, and it could be more serious," he said.

Lobster fishermen in Gaspé also worried

Across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the southern Gaspé coast, O'Neil Cloutier echoes Keats concerns.

Cloutier is the general manager of the Regroupement des pêcheurs du sud de la Gaspésie.

He would like to see the lobster season postponed by another two weeks.

"It's our social responsibility," he said.

Lobster boats are even smaller than crab boats, Cloutier said, making it impossible for the 160 Gaspé fishermen to keep a two-metre distance from one another.

"There is a reason why we're scared," said Cloutier, who reiterated his request to DFO on Tuesday morning. 

Delaying by two weeks would also leave some breathing room for fish processing plants, he said, that are also trying to cope with the pandemic.

Fishing captain Leon Keats says boats are docked side by side in small marinas, like the one in Kegaska, Que., which means fishermen have to jump from one boat to the other to get to shore. (Submitted by Chad O'Brien)

Over the week-end, one of Quebec's largest fish plants in Sainte-Thérèse-de-Gaspé had to shut down its operations because a worker contracted COVID-19.

On Tuesday, public health officials in the Gaspé confirmed two more employees at E. Gagnon et Fils plant tested positive for COVID-19, as did a fisherman who works for the company.

Vice-president Bill Sheehan said the plant will remain closed until it gets the all-clear from public health officials.

 "I just hope it's going to be the last time we have to deal with this problem this year," Sheehan said.

Sheehan said having to shut down at the beginning of the season, when the plant was only operating at around 10 per cent capacity, is a lesser evil.

At the height of the season, the company employs nearly 600 workers, with 350 to 400 working in the processing plant.

In the meantime, crab fishermen in Zone 17, near Rimouski, are sending their products to other transformation plants in the region.

Meetings in coming days

The Lower North Shore region hasn't had a single case of COVID-19 so far.

And residents in Kegaska want to keep it that way.

Local officials made repeated calls to the province to set up road blocks on Highway 138 to limit travel from other regions. 

Unhappy that their demands were not being met, residents decided to set up their own checkpoint last week.

Fish-processing plants operate only a few months per year and would be affected by any changes to the fishing season. (Radio-Canada)

The local MP for the Minganie region on the North Shore, Marilène Gill, said she has heard concerns from several fishermen on the coast.

In places like Kegaska, where the dock is quite small, fishing boats are tied together side by side. To make their way to shore, fishermen have to hop on each other's boats.

"They can't follow the directives," Gill said. "Social distancing on a boat is impossible," she said, and lowering the number of crew members on a boat to respect health guidelines could lead to other dangerous situations.

Gill hopes to persuade DFO officials to postpone the opening of the fishery until at least May 1 when she meets with them Thursday.

A spokesperson for federal Minister of Fisheries Bernadette Jordan told CBC there are currently no plans to postpone the crab fishing season in Zone 16A, but said the government was having ongoing discussions with the industry as the situation evolves.

"Our government has been clear: no one should have to choose between their health and their financial security. The health and safety of workers remains our number one priority and we take these concerns very seriously," said Jane Deeks wrote in an email statement to CBC.

In an interview with CBC News on Wednesday, Jordan said that it's important to keep fisheries open because they're essential to the country's food supply.  

She said discussions are taking place around delaying fishing seasons across Atlantic Canada, but that she wants to hear from the fishing organizations before making any decisions.

"At this point, there is no plan to close any seasons."

The Minister's office said on Thursday that "we have been consulting with industry partners to determine the best path forward on the matter, and will have more to say soon."

With files from Radio-Canada's Michel-Félix Tremblay

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