New Brunswick

Process local lobster first, say Val Comeau fishermen after devastating plant fire

For some lobster fishermen in Val Comeau, in northeastern New Brunswick, the loss of the processing plant in a fire last week was just the latest blow in an already stressful lobster fishing season. 

'We don't even know if we have buyers to buy our catch'

Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous fish plant in Val Comeau announced Monday it would not be resuming lobster processing operations this season. Over 300 people were employed at the plant to process 80,000 pounds of lobster each day. (Submitted/Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous)

For some lobster fishermen in Val Comeau, in northeastern New Brunswick, the loss of the processing plant in a fire Thursday was just the latest blow in an already stressful lobster fishing season. 

Steve Ferguson said he wonders what will happen next as they wait to see if the buyer they deal with at Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous factory will be able to help them out. 

"Today and tomorrow, we don't even know if we have buyers to buy our catch." 

Late Monday, the company confirmed it would not be able to resume processing lobster as it had hoped to. 

In a release, Craig Rexroad, the company's director of communication, said two of the three processing buildings were destroyed.

"The loss of those two buildings means we have lost our ability to do any immediate additional processing of live lobsters, resulting in the loss in our ability to purchase and process more than 80,000 pounds of live lobster per day." 

Rexroad said the company understands it will have an impact on the local fishing industry. 

"Our goal is to maintain and sustain our partnerships with all the local fishermen in the area moving forward." 

At the time of the fire, 331 people were working at the plant processing lobster being caught by almost 100 lobster fishermen including local fishermen.

Lobster fishermen Steve Ferguson said local fishermen in Val Comeau and Tracadie-Sheila want buyers to make sure local catches are processed before more lobster is brought in from other provinces. (Radio Canada)

On Sunday, some of those local fishermen held a protest so they could make sure their catch would take priority over lobster being brought in from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island if the plant did resume operating. 

"At the end of the day, if they can't produce our lobster from here, why are they bringing so much from other provinces. We want them to buy local first before buying from somewhere else."  

Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous said Sunday it had moved some employees to other plants, but was still evaluating the impact of the fire and considering the next steps.

Trying to find a buyer and a plant to process their lobster has been stressful for about two-thirds of the fleet that fish from the wharf in Val Comeau and some that fish from Tracadie-Sheila since the fire. Fishermen were trying to meet with the buyer to see if something could be worked out. 

But it's not all they've been dealing with said Ferguson. 

First, COVID-19 delayed the opening of the spring lobster season in Zone 23 by two weeks from its start date of May 1 to May 15. Then Premier Blaine Higgs said the temporary foreign workers on their way to work in fish processing plants and on farms across the province were banned from entering the province. 

Processing plants scrambled to find enough staff to help process the lobster. But two days into the season, some buyers set a quota and limited the amount of lobster they would buy. 

Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous spokesman Craig Rexroad said two of the three processing buildings were destroyed in the fire. (Submitted/Les Pêcheries de Chez-Nous)
But with high catches, Ferguson said, having a 500-pound quota is hurting the bottom line, especially with the low price they are expecting to be paid.

"Anything under five bucks is not a good price."  

Even trying to sell the remainder of the catch left after the quota is proving difficult with so many others trying to do the same thing. 

Ferguson, who has been fishing for 21 years, said he wishes the season would have been cancelled altogether as things like this continue to happen.

"It's not just Val Comeau wharf, it's all along the Acadian Peninsula, up north, we have all the same issue with every wharf." 

Keith Chaisson, the MLA for Tracadie-Sheila joined the fishermen at the plant Sunday morning to listen to their concerns. 

"Every day they don't go out fishing is another day they don't get any money." 

Describing the situation the fishermen are in as a "perfect storm," the MLA said he was going to take their concerns to the minister of agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries to see if anything can be done to help.  

Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Ross Wetmore said the fire is a big setback for New Brunswick's processing capacity.

"At this point, it's still too early to fully evaluate how the fire will affect this year's lobster season." 

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