Nova Scotia

'It's gonna have a financial impact': Cape Breton lobster industry concerned about coronavirus

People working in the lobster industry in Cape Breton are concerned about how the coronavirus could impact prices this spring. People in China staying home and avoiding restaurants would create less demand for product from Canada.

'Any little thing that happens anywhere around the world can have an impact right down to Neils Harbour'

With lobster fishing set to resume in Cape Breton in May, fishermen are concerned about the effect of coronavirus on one of their major international markets. (CBC)

While lobster industry leaders say it's too early to know how the coronavirus outbreak could affect the spring fishery in Cape Breton, there's concern a reduced demand from China could influence prices at the wharf.

Lobster fishing areas in Cape Breton start to open in early May.

It's difficult to say exactly how much of the lobster landed around the island goes to China because the product can change hands several times, said Osborne Burke, general manager of Victoria Co-op Fisheries in Neils Harbour.

"But it's certainly in hundreds of thousands of pounds," he said.

Burke is in contact with customers in China on a regular basis.

'The biggest thing initially was the fear'

"The biggest thing initially was the fear — people afraid to go out," he said. "People weren't going to restaurants, therefore restaurants weren't ordering as much product. And the chain rolled all the way back to Canada."

But he's been hearing that businesses in China are slowly reopening. How long it will take to get back to business as usual is anyone's guess.

The concern is that the reduced demand could continue into the spring, affecting the Nova Scotia lobster industry.

"You're going to have 5,000 to 6,000 vessels on the water in mid-May, and you're going to have a lot of product coming in," he said.

"Right now, the indications are we're likely going to see a lot of lobsters landed and probably reduced pricing throughout the marketplace from the harvester to the buyer to the processor.… It's gonna have a financial impact. To what extent, we don't really know yet."

Osborne Burke is the president and general manager of Victoria Co-operative Fisheries based in Neils Harbour. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

There has already been some impact on shore price in areas from Digby to Halifax and in the Bay of Fundy around Grand Manan where fishing is happening, said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

The upside is that there's little lobster landed in the winter.

"If it had to happen anytime it's probably a good time for it to have happened," said Irvine, 'because there hasn't been much fishing and there's generally not a large inventory at the moment."

Looking at possibilities

In the meantime, the council has formed a group to work through the possibilities.

"We're doing a lot of discussion and thinking about what we might do if this continues," said Irvine.

The situation has also served as an incentive to intensify efforts to diversify.

The council is investing in more marketing in Europe with some in China as well to help with Canada's return to that market.

Victoria Co-op Fisheries has been working to grow its market in Southeast Asia, where it is selling processed product for the most part.

"We're looking to do more in that area because when you compare the EU to Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia has 50 million more people and they all eat seafood," said Burke.

Victoria Co-op Fisheries was to take part in a Nova Scotia Business Inc. trade mission to Vietnam, Indonesia and Taiwan in mid-February, but the trip was cancelled because of coronavirus concerns.

"It reinforces the fact it's a global market," said Burke, "and any little thing that happens anywhere around the world can have an impact right down to Neils Harbour on the wharf."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Holly Conners is a reporter and current affairs producer who has been with CBC Cape Breton since 1998. Contact her at holly.conners@cbc.ca.

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