When will lobster flights resume to China? It depends who you ask
Flights of live lobster to China plummeted in late January after the coronavirus outbreak started
Nova Scotia's fisheries minister says it will be months before live lobster shipments to China recover from the impact of the coronavirus.
"It'll probably be three or four months at least," Keith Colwell told reporters after announcing $2.5 million in funding for a lobster quality research and innovation centre at Université Sainte-Anne in Church Point, N.S.
"It's a concern for us. It's a serious concern, not just with lobster, but everything we export there."
Flights of live lobster plummeted in late January after the coronavirus outbreak hit China, down from nine flights per week out of the region to one or two, and those are not always full.
Initially, Colwell called it a blip.
"Well, it's a blip at the moment," he maintained on Wednesday.
Colwell admits he does not know how long the slowdown will last, but insists the setback is temporary.
"We're solidly established in the market. As soon as the population in China can get out again and go back to restaurants and do these things, we'll be back in the marketplace," he said.
Live lobster sales from Canada to China in the first 10 months of 2019 were $384 million, with most of that coming from Nova Scotia, where lobster sales overall for the year were estimated at $1.2 billion by the province.
For several months in 2019, exports to China exceeded those to the United States, which has long been the largest destination.
Given the importance of the Chinese market, there has been intense interest and speculation about when shipments will resume.
"I think this is a big deal, particularly the way they've dealt with it, like they've closed stuff down," said Chandra Gavin, a commercial fisherman from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. "We went through SARS and I don't think any of that, none of this happened for that."
She and hundreds of others in the seafood industry are in Halifax this week for a trade show and conference organized by the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, and the aquaculture industry.
A briefing Wednesday by export consultant Yang Xue offered a hopeful assessment.
Xue predicts demand will pick up as Chinese workers return to work. Authorities there have announced they want to see some workers back on the job this week and next.
"From last week, there are inquiries from China directly to Nova Scotia for live lobster," he told CBC News.
"We will see this coming more and more in the next couple of weeks. So in my personal experience, I hope everything will be back in slowly in between April and May."
That assessment was challenged as too optimistic by Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster, who said it could be many months before flights reach former levels.
Paul van de Wiel, of the North Bay Fishermen's Co-op in Ballantynes Cove, N.S., said the outbreak occurred at a time when the biggest fishing effort in southwestern Nova Scotia is normally winding down anyway with gear coming out of the water.
"I'm kind of hoping we will see a recovery in June, July. But really it's up in the air. We don't know how it's going to spread like in Italy and South Korea, what's going to happen there," he told CBC News.
Van de Wiel says the wharf price of lobster may have dropped somewhat from highs before the outbreak, but it is holding. He said some fishermen this week were getting $8 per pound.