Atlantic Canada seafood sectors surged in 2021
'It rebounded way faster than I thought it would,' says N.S. lobster fisherman
In Riverport on Nova Scotia's south shore, lobster fisherman Jason Conrad remembers when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 and the price of lobster plummeted to $4 a pound — below what it cost him to catch a lobster.
"A lot of days, I went fishing to just make sure my deckhand got a paycheque, and I lost money," Conrad said aboard his boat, Family Tradition 07.
The pandemic is still with us, but low prices in the seafood sector are long gone as housebound consumers spend on little luxuries.
Last month, Conrad was getting over $14 a pound — a sign of industry recovery that began at the end of 2020.
"It rebounded way faster than I thought it would," he said.
According to economic data provided to CBC News from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Atlantic Canada's big money seafood species surged in value in the second year of the pandemic.
Snow crab increases huge
DFO released landed quantities and values in four major wild caught species: lobster, snow crab, sea scallops and halibut.
The figures are for all of 2020 and the first 11 months of 2021. The department said the data is preliminary and there was a gap.
Last year's values for lobster, halibut and scallops in the Gulf of St. Lawrence were not available.
But the industry pointed upward.
In the first 11 months of 2021, the value of snow crab in Newfoundland and Labrador reached $612 million — a 174 per cent increase compared to all of 2020, DFO reported.
In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, snow crab landings nearly doubled in value to $310 million.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the value of lobster at the wharf was $82 million — a $38-million or 87 per cent increase.
In DFO's Maritimes region, encompassing the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, sea scallops in 2021 were worth $145 million. That's up $18 million or 14 per cent, even though landings were six million kilograms lower up to the end of November.
The value of reported halibut landings in the Maritimes was $37 million, a 15 per cent increase.
Banner year for lobster
The Maritimes lobster fishery is also on track for a banner year.
The 2021 data does not include what was landed in December, which marks the busiest time in the southwest Nova Scotia lobster fishery — Canada's most lucrative.
Lobster in the region was valued at $694 million up to the end of November 2021 — just $2 million less than 2020, which included 11-million kilograms or 24-million pounds more in landings for the full year.
Pierre-Marcel Desjardins, an economics professor at the Université de Moncton, said the shellfish sector was able to shift to grocery and retail sales when the food service side of the business slumped as restaurants, casinos and cruise ships shut down.
"A lot of consumers stopped going on trips, but decided that they were going to still treat themselves to some delicacies, and lobster and snow crab were part of that. Scallops also," he said.
While it was a "very, very, very good year for harvesters," Desjardins said not everyone in the sector benefited equally.
More money for repairs, new boats
Still, the increase in landed values is injecting a significant amount of money into the region.
Speaking on behalf of New Brunswick's big snow crab fleet, Jean Lanteigne of the Acadian Federation of Professional Fishers said the windfall has resulted in noticeably more spending on maintenance, repairs and new vessels.
"Our boatyard here is actually very, very busy with all kinds of suppliers," Lanteigne said from Shippagan.
"The Acadian crab fleet is anywhere from 30 to 50 years old, so the actual replacement of the fishing vessels, they were due for that, and they are very active purchasing and getting new crab boats being built. So fibreglass, aluminum and metal shops are extremely busy building boats."
Everyone in the industry is wondering if the high prices will last after the pandemic fades.
Desjardins is doubtful.
"People will start travelling again. A lot of the consumers that were ready to fork a significant amount of money to buy snow crab or lobster may not be willing to do the same once we return to a new normal," he said.
"Those consumers will have alternatives, and it can be resorts that [they] are going to be spending their money on or on cruise ships."
Too early to say what 2022 will bring
In the short term, the good times look to continue for snow crab fishermen. A main competitor, Alaska, has slashed its snow crab quota by nearly 90 per cent.
That leaves Atlantic Canada (and Russia) poised to benefit as suppliers in North America.
"Our product may be on the increase during 2022. That is a factor that we do see right now. Will that stay on through the rest of the year? It's kind of too early in the game to confirm," said Lanteigne.
Back in Riverport, Conrad makes no apologies for the price increases, which are outside his control. He said they offset inflation for diesel, bait and lobster traps.
The 33-year-old bought into the fishery when he was 27, and said extra money goes to pay down debt.
"What I learned with the COVID year was to not spend till the season's done. My takeaway from this experience is don't count your chickens before they hatch," he said.