A line in the ocean and Clearwater's monopoly over 720 tonnes of lobster
Company holds exclusive rights to entire Nova Scotia offshore lobster fishery
Wedgeport lobster fisherman Lucien LeBlanc has watched the big blue Clearwater Seafoods trawler Randell Dominaux hauling lobster traps 80 kilometres off the southern tip of Nova Scotia — and looked on with envy.
"If a genie popped up and I could get one wish, I'd like to have a zone all to myself. Not just to myself — I'd love to have it for LFA [lobster fishing area] 34. They have a large zone and they only use a miniscule amount of it," LeBlanc said.
The Clearwater trawler is working its side of what's known as Lobster Fishing Area 41 — a vast area reserved exclusively for Clearwater in a lobster fishery unique in Canada.
On the other side are dozens of inshore fishermen who now routinely fish 80 kilometres offshore during their November to May season.
"Six months of the year we are fishing just on one side of the line from the Randell Dominaux," LeBlanc said during a recent storm day in port on board his boat John Harold.
Clearwater Seafoods Limited Partnership holds all eight offshore lobster licences in Area 41, which stretches from the Canada-U.S. boundary on Georges Bank off southern Nova Scotia to the Laurentian Channel between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.
It's the only lobster fishing area in Canada with a quota, a yearlong season and no trap limit.
All of its annual total allowable catch of 720 tonnes — or nearly 1.6 million pounds of lobster — is caught off southern Nova Scotia.
DFO amending decades-old rule
Offshore lobster remains a Clearwater monopoly, unlike its arctic surf clam fishery. That ended in February, when Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc awarded 25 per cent of the arctic surf clam quota to a First Nations consortium and industry partner, Premium Seafoods of Arichat.
Dominic LeBlanc's office tells CBC News there no plans to allow new entrants in Clearwater's offshore lobster fishery.
While Clearwater and DFO clearly do not always see eye to eye — the company has threatened legal action for what it claims is an "expropriation" of its arctic surf clam quota — a CBC News investigation reveals the company is poised to achieve a long-sought change to a fisheries rule for its offshore lobster monopoly.
The department is amending a decades-old Atlantic Fisheries Regulations requirement that gear must be tended within 72 hours.
It's a standard that many inshore boats and Clearwater, with its single vessel hauling thousands of traps, do not meet.
Why DFO cares about 72-hour rule
The purpose of the rule is to prevent spoilage of the catch and to reduce the likelihood of gear loss and gear conflict.
"In some fisheries, the requirement to tend gear every 72 hours is impractical," Sara Quigley, senior fisheries management officer for the Maritimes, said in an email to CBC News.
In its most recent management plan for the Clearwater offshore lobster fishery, the department said it will "provide for flexibility … where scientific studies have shown that the conservation objectives of a 72-hour maximum can be achieved through other means."
Company provided secret science
Clearwater's effort to get the regulation changed is documented in reports filed by the Marine Stewardship Council, which has certified the offshore lobster fishery as environmentally sustainable since 2010.
As part of the 72-hour rule amendment process, the Marine Stewardship Council reported last October that Clearwater hired third-party researchers to provide a proprietary scientific study of the effects of different soak times of traps on the target and non-target species in the offshore lobster fishery.
The methodology was approved by DFO.
"The study has been completed but the report is not yet available, owing to it containing corporately sensitive information," Marine Stewardship Council auditors reported.
According to the auditors, the company said its findings have shown that longer soak times do not show increased bycatch, one of the conservation concerns.
DFO won't show the science
But the study has not been released, and that angers Shannon Arnold of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. She said she's been asking DFO for it for two years.
"This company at the moment has exclusive access to a big swatch of ocean. They have a privilege to fish there and therefore they have accountability to the public," Arnold said. "And any of the science and that sort of thing that is coming out of that fishery should be publicly available."
In its 2014 management plan for the Clearwater fishery, DFO said it "has agreed" to amend the 72-hour rule.
Arnold said the department later walked that back, saying more study was needed.
CBC News has asked DFO to release the associated science. It has not.
Who will benefit?
DFO has not spelled out how much time traps will be allowed to go unchecked, or how the rule will apply to various fleets once it amends its regulations.
For now, the rule remains on the books for all. Clearwater said this is not being done for the company alone.
"Our understanding is that DFO is pursuing changes to its regulations which apply to all trap fisheries and they are seeking to provide flexibility where there is evidence that conservation outcomes can continue to be met. This makes good sense," vice-president Christine Penney said in an email.
The 720-tonne offshore lobster quota is a small part of what feeds Clearwater's global supply chain.
The company said in 2017, it bought 85 per cent of its lobsters from inshore fishermen. Lobster is a $100-million-a-year business for Clearwater.
Penney said describing its offshore lobster fishery in Area 41 as a monopoly is "highly misleading."
"We operate in a highly competitive environment. Our landings represent less than one per cent of lobster landings in Atlantic Canada, not to mention the U.S. landings, which are roughly equivalent in size to the Canadian landings," Penney said.
An inshore ally
Back in Wedgeport, Lucien LeBlanc said what's going on in Area 41 is a Clearwater monopoly and unfair.
When Clearwater consolidated control of the fishery decades ago, very few inshore fishermen ventured 80 kilometres offshore. Today, with much more powerful boats, more and more inshore fishermen from LFA 33 and 34 are fishing the line.
But LeBlanc said Clearwater is right about the 72-hour rule, which, he said, is not widely followed and is rarely enforced.
"I think the 72-hour rule should be relaxed for Clearwater and the reason I think that, is it should be relaxed for everybody. If it only becomes relaxed for Clearwater, then I personally have an issue. But I think the rule is silly," LeBlanc said.
The regulation was developed for the gill net fishery, he said, which can ghost fish if gear is lost or not properly tended.
LeBlanc said lobster pots pose far less of a threat.
The 72-hour rule is impractical in a winter fishery when weather can keep fishermen away from gear for days, if not weeks.
"Every single vessel you see in this port has done something illegal according to that 72-hour rule. None of us abide by that rule. And it's not enforced upon us regularly, I must say. Honestly, every single boat sitting here today, none has hauled traps in the last 72 hours."