Nova Scotia

Lunenburg lobster captain sells directly to consumers to stay afloat during COVID-19

For Gail Atkinson, selling directly to consumers in the Lunenburg, N.S.-area is a way to keep Atlantic Canada's lucrative lobster fishery chugging along even as COVID-19 shuts down markets in Asia, but it's a business model that doesn't work for everyone.

Gail Atkinson hopes to continue delivery model even after pandemic

Gail Atkinson is the captain of the Nellie Row and recently began selling lobster at the wharf and directly to consumers. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

It was shaping up to be one of Gail Atkinson's best seasons ever, but then COVID-19 struck and the Lunenburg, N.S., lobster fisher had to get creative. 

Atkinson, who captains the Nellie Row, decided to keep her traps in the water even as prices plummeted. Now, she not only catches lobster, she also delivers it to customers in the Lunenburg area.

"We have this list and a trap will come up, and we'll say, 'Oh, that's a five-pounder, that's for Martha.' Some people are very specific about their orders," Atkinson told CBC's Information Morning on Monday.

For her, nurturing a hyper-local market is a way to keep a piece of Atlantic Canada's lucrative lobster fishery chugging along, even as the pandemic shuts down markets in Asia.

Atkinson said taking orders and doing deliveries is definitely more work, but it's paying off — and not just for her bottom line.

"I think it's important that we remember .... where our food comes from, so this is a super direct way of getting food from the ocean directly to people," she said.

The seafood industry is an essential service, which means fisheries workers and processors can continue to operate as long as they follow public health orders. Despite calls by processors to close Atlantic Canada's lobster fishery this year, Canada's fisheries minister said Friday that it will remain open.

Atkinson is selling lobster for $8 a pound at the wharf and offering "contactless" delivery for customers near Lunenburg.

She said a couple in LaHave, N.S., celebrating their anniversary recently met her in a Bridgewater, N.S., parking lot to pick up their order.

"You feel like you're doing something illegal sometimes, but it's a lot of fun. We're actually enjoying it," she said with a laugh. "We have more orders now than what we're catching, so we're getting a bit behind."

Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan has resisted calls to shut down the spring lobster fishery due to health concerns over COVID-19 and the glut in inventory it has created. (Eric Woolliscoft/CBC)

Commercial fishers can apply for a fish vendor permit through the provincial Department of Environment to sell their catches from the wharf or by delivery.

The department said it has issued 28 permits since March 16 — 13 were new permits to sell live lobster, while 15 were renewals.

In 2019, the department renewed a total of 50 live lobster permits, but didn't get any requests for new permits.

Stephen Bond, co-chair of the Lobster Fishery Area 33 advisory committee, is taking the opposite approach.

Atkinson said lobster prices plummeted to around $4/pound in mid-January, but she's now selling them for $8/pound. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC)

About a week ago, the Chester Basin, N.S., fisher decided to haul up the majority of his traps, although he's kept a handful in the water to feed his family and friends.

"It's tough because it's not just my family. My crew relies on the boat and the income and stuff as well," he said. "Nobody wants to walk away from doing business and trying to make some money."

He applauds what Atkinson is doing, but said it's not feasible for him given the size of his boat and crew.

"There's the select few, I'll call them, that are able to follow Gail's model or a smaller business model working with some of the local community, but it certainly doesn't cover off the market that we're missing," he said.

Customers can place orders for live lobster from the crew of the Nellie Row on Instagram and Facebook, and Atkinson said they offer 'contactless' delivery in accordance with public health orders. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

He's among a group of people in the industry who've wanted to see the fishery remain open. Still, Bond said that in some areas of LFA 33, 80 to 90 per cent of boats have voluntarily stopped fishing.

"With such diverse business models throughout the whole industry, it seemed unfair to close it for people who might have been able to make some money through the spring here," he said.

Bernadette Jordan told CBC News last week that the federal government is looking at ways to address the collapse of the lobster market in places like Asia by developing markets closer to home.

She also said that supports such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which opened today for applications, and 75 per cent wage subsidies will help harvesters in the meantime.

With files from CBC's Information Morning