Nova Scotia

Maritime boat building 'boom' fuelled by lobster industry

Maritime boat yards are operating at full capacity to meet demand for new lobster fishing boats — costing upwards of $1 million each — which has delivery dates for those new vessels stretching years into the future.

The wait for new fishing boats is now 2020 at some boat yards in the Maritimes

Boat builders across the Maritimes say the lobster industry has been so successful that the wait times for new boats is now 2020. The local boom in business, however, has been good for rural communities, they say. (CBC)

Maritime boat yards are operating at full capacity to meet demand for new lobster fishing boats — costing upwards of $1 million each — which has delivery dates for those new vessels stretching years into the future.

"We are fully booked for the next three to four years. Fully booked. To get a boat, we could start in 2019, but 2020 for completion," said Fraser Challoner, co-owner of Wedgeport Boats Limited, which employs 35 people in the small southwest Nova Scotia fishing community.

The company requires a $10,000 deposit to reserve a spot in line.

"Historically, if you had one year in advance, it was awesome. This is unheard of. I've talked with guys with 35 years in this industry and they've never seen this," Challoner told CBC News.

Bruno Gaudet of Cheticamp Boatbuilders is one of those veterans. His company isn't taking new orders before 2018.

"I've been at this for 35 years. I've never turned down that much work," he said.

Why it's happening 

The lengthy waits are the result of several factors: demand from a booming lobster industry, longer times needed to build a new generation of bigger vessels and an acute shortage of skilled labour.

The situation is affecting yards across the Maritimes.

"I have eight men working and I need 16," said Jimmie Doucette of Docuette's Boat Building. The northern P.E.I. yard produces the distinctive Gulf lobster boat. "I just can't find the workers."

One company in Nova Scotia isn't taking new orders before 2018 because the demand is so high. (CBC)

Louis Dugay of Cap Pele Enterprises Inc. in New Brunswick runs a much smaller operation. He says a surge in prices has put more money in the pockets of fishermen.

"It's motivated the fishermen to refurbish, rebuild or get brand new boats," Dugay said. "I'm booked two years solid."

Newly-opened Atlantic Boat Builders in Caraquet, N.B. has more ambitious plans. The company of 10 says it's about to double its workforce. It is selling a new design — a hybrid lobster and crab boat. 

"We have accommodated our facility and staff for the demand," said Jean Pierre Robichaud.

$100K pay cuts

The labour shortage is blamed on the exodus of skilled trades people from the region — primarily to the oil patch.

At Wedgeport, red seal welder Colin Earle is now back at the boatyard he left for an oil sands job in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Nova Scotia boat builder on why he left Fort McMurray

5 years ago
Colin Earle, a red seal welder, says he was sick of commuting from Yarmouth to an oil sands camp in northern Alberta. 1:24

"I was working for Pacer Promec Energy Corporation. Our contract came to a close. The price of oil went down. The company folded and I came home," he said.

Earle says he is now making $100,000 less a year. But he was sick of commuting from Yarmouth to an oil sands camp in northern Alberta, leaving behind his wife and children.

"I have two young daughters at home. One is 11, one is two  and $100,000 a year doesn't buy back the years I missed from them," Earle told CBC News.

"He was a great fit. We could use five or six more like him," said Challoner, co-owner of Wedgeport Boats.

The price tags

One building over at Wedgeport Boats, lobster fisherman Andrew Nickerson is watching fibre glass being applied to his new boat — so large it barely fits into the shed where it's being built. It is 15-metres long and 8-metres wide. The yard cut a hole in the front wall to accommodate the bow. 

When completed later this spring, the L and J Swell Rider — named after his children Logan and Jordan — will cost the Yarmouth fisherman about $700,000.

"It's an investment in my business. I've said this is the last one. This is going to keep me going forward for the rest of my career," Nickerson said. 

The boat features large live wells that allow fishermen to preserve their catch and stay out longer. Nickerson says it will allow him to fish from 20 to 50 nautical miles off the coast.

"It gives that extra time on the water. Instead of steaming back in for six hours I can spend the night, sleep at sea, keep my lobsters alive and haul. It makes it more economic," Nickerson said. 

'All the comforts of home'

Fraser Challoner in Wedgeport says the bigger size and custom design features lengthen the time it takes to build a boat.

"The accommodations are that of a house. There's the washroom, TV's, all the comforts of home."

He says fully outfitted boats can cost from $750,000 to $1.2 million. In 2003, the yard built 12 or 13 boats, now Challoner says it can turn out around six or seven. 

In Nova Scotia, commercial fishing boat sales jumped 17 per cent in 2015, according to the Nova Scotia Boat Builders Association.

Finished outfitted boats can cost from $750,000 to $1.2 million. (CBC)

'Boom' helps communities

Boat builders are benefiting from a steady upward rise in the lobster fishery, which has had everything go right in the past year.

The cost of fuel to drive their boats has dropped, while lobster prices are up and catches strong. A lower Canadian dollar has made selling in the U.S. more lucrative.

"The combination of those things means lobster fishermen are making more money. The sales we are seeing are the best we have [had] since our organization started recording them and that is 19 years," said Tim Edwards of the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association.

The economic impact is rippling throughout coastal communities in the region.

"When you think of the shops, they are all near the water. It encompasses the whole province. These small communities and villages are all being positively affected by this boom. Take our operation place. With 35 employees, that is 35 families. Where once it was seasonal, you now have a full year's income," Challoner said.


Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.


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