New Brunswick

Situation changing 'by the hour' as seafood industry reels under Covid-19 threat

New Brunswick's seafood industry is reeling as the corona virus fallout spreads in traditional markets around the world.

Concerns grow over whether "essential" international workers will be allowed in

New Brunswick's crab and lobster industries are struggling to stay on top of developments as seafood markets collapse around the world (CBC)

New Brunswick's seafood industry is reeling as the coronavirus fallout spreads in traditional markets around the world.

"Things are changing by the hour," said Melanie Sonnenberg of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association.

"You know at this point it's hard to know how long it will go on, what will the impacts look like over the long haul. It's just an impossible situation today as we watch this situation start to unravel."

If there's an upside, said Sonnenberg, it's that the winter season is not the peak time for landings.

on the other side of the Bay of Fundy, many of the people involved in Nova Scotia's lobster industry spent the day debating whether to stop fishing entirely because more are being caught than can be absorbed as markets in the Pacific Rim and Europe collapse.

The same is now happening in North America with restaurants closing, cruise lines tying up their ships, and people working from home.

As well, seafood processors are waiting to see whether they will be allowed to bring in international workers who have been critical to getting the New Brunswick industry through the processing season.

Nat Richard, corporate affairs manager at Cape Bald Packers, in Cap-Pele says there is real concern that 'essential' international workers will be not be allowed in to process crab and lobster meat. (CBC)

"These are not normal times," said Nat Richard, manager of corporate operations at Cape Bald Packers in Cap-Pele.

He says many of the people brought into the province over the past several years have been from countries like Mexico and Jamaica, where there have been very few instances of Covid-19, yet he continues to hear talk of closing the border.

"We're very alert to this issue," said Richard. "If ever there were the potential for delays or complications, I mean it could have a significant impact on our operations. And so we are having a constant conversation with the federal government about this."

Cape Bald processes lobster and crab and employs about 500 workers at two Cap-Pele plants.
Richard would not reveal how many international workers the company brings in but says it's less than half the total workforce.

He said with the live lobster industry in distress, steps have to be taken to ensure processed seafood companies aren't undermined at the same time.

It is a concern shared by other companies. It is estimated well over a thousand international workers are employed in the industry during the processing season, which begins in May.

Dipper Harbour fisherman Greg Thompson says when the season opens in May prices may be so low, boats will remain at the wharf (Roger Cosman, CBC)

The spring lobster season on the Bay of Fundy's north shore also starts in May. And in Dipper Harbour, fisherman Greg Thompson is pretty sure of one thing: prices will be rock bottom.

By then, every district in the Maritimes will be open to lobster fishing, so New Brunswick fishermen will be joining Nova Scotians who are already trying to decide whether it's worth the bother.

"The [Nova Scotia] announcement really brought it home," said Thompson. "I predict that by May we are going to be faced with a very low price."

Thompson says if the price falls to $4 or $5 a pound, many people will likely tie up their boats.

He says it is a stunning reversal from the fall when fishermen were getting $9 to $10 dollars a pound.

"All industries should be looking at this as a bit of a wake up call with the global economy that we're not isolated," he said. "That what happens, shall we say, on the other side of the world affects us quite dramatically."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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