Record prices, higher quotas fuelling excitement in N.L. crab fishery
Processors say price is too high and shortage of plant workers is causing delays
After more than 40 years in the Newfoundland and Labrador fishing industry, Nelson Bussey of Port de Grave knows when things are going well. And so far this year, he couldn't be happier.
"I think this will be the best year ever for the crab fishery," Bussey said recently, standing on the deck of his 65-foot fishing vessel, the Eastern Princess II.
Bussey has reason to be upbeat.
Beneath his feet, the fish hold on his vessel was crawling with nearly $400,000 worth of snow crab, a bounty so valuable that crew members aboard the Princess could hardly contain their delight.
"For me and my wife this is a good way to put in another good year and a successful one for us," said veteran harvester Wayde Gillingham.
"It will help us get through the year and be financially stable for a year," added crewmate Jonathan Boone. "Last year was a rough year. This year will be a better year."
A combination of record prices and bigger quotas is setting the stage for the best-ever season in the Newfoundland and Labrador crab harvest, with insiders predicting that the landed value could exceed $500 million.
But while harvesters are celebrating, the companies and buy and process crab are not.
In a statement released late Friday afternoon, the executive director for the Association of Seafood Producers said the price is too high, and that the model used to set prices is broken.
"We're very concerned about the decision of the Fish Price Setting Panel," said Derek Butler.
He said the current price is very high," and said it is "divorced from our business structure and costs, and swinging the pendulum of market significantly to harvesters."
But for a provincial economy struggling through a pandemic, punishing public debt and an unemployment rate towering well above the national benchmark, harvesters say the current scenario is — to borrow a well-known phrase — lifting all boats.
"It's good for the businesses. It's good for the communities. If you make money, you spend money," said Bussey.
It's a welcome circumstance following several years of decline and uncertainty for the province's most valuable seafood product.
With signs of a strengthening resource, federal regulators bumped up the overall quota to roughly 38,000 tonnes, an increase of roughly 30 per cent over last year.
WATCH | Terry Roberts talks with harvesters about the record-high prices in this year's crab fishery:
"We're seeing a lot of small crab and small crab is the future. The resource is good," said Bussey.
Americans love snow crab
The timing of that increase is welcomed because the market for snow crab is in the red zone, driven by an unprecedented demand from U.S. consumers at retail outlets.
It's all part of the COVID-19 stay-at-home phenomenon that has practically wiped out the traditional restaurant market.
The harvest opened at the beginning of April, with a record price of nearly six bucks a pound.
But the fisheries union appealed to the fish price setting panel, and won a jaw dropping decision last Sunday: a new price of $7.60 for these long legged, bottom dwelling shellfish.
That's more than double last year's price, and far removed from days when harvesters like Bussey were being paid $1.50 for their catch.
"Right now it's the highest price that we've ever fished for in my career, and in anyone's career, in Newfoundland," he said.
"Whether you're in a speed boat or in a 65-footer, [it's] the same for everyone. The prices are good and everyone is pleased with it."
But things are rarely uncomplicated in the fishery. Now there are fears of a glut as boats rush to catch their quotas, while the price is at its peak.
So there's talk of trip limits as plants struggle to keep up, and ensure quality does not slip.
And processors are now raising a new concern: a shortage of workers.
Butler said temporary changes to employment insurance system are having an impact on the workforce at fish processing facilities.
"It's understood that workers who reach a minimum 125 hours can get an additional 300 hours 'granted' in order to be eligible for benefits," said Butler. "This temporary change to the EI program is resulting in a lack of availability of workers in some facilities."
Without an adequate number of workers, there are warnings of delays in processing, which in turn could slow the ability of plants to accept crab from harvesters.
"We have raised our concerns with both the provincial and federal governments," said Butler.
Meanwhile, harvesters like Nelson Bussey say it's vital that the market be supplied with top quality crab, and he's willing to adapt.
"If we've got to space it out, well, we'll do it," he said.