Nova Scotia

Price, catch down as Cape Breton lobster season gets into gear

Lobster fishing season opened around Cape Breton Island on May 15 and harvesters say there's even more uncertainty this year because COVID-19 could cut the season short.

Fishermen say COVID-19 pandemic has added more uncertainty over worries the season will be cut short

The catch and price are both down in Cape Breton Island's lobster fishery, which opened May 15, but fishermen say COVID-19 has added another layer of uncertainty to the season. (CBC)

The lobster fishing season around Cape Breton Island opened May 15 and harvesters say the catch and the price have not been as good as the weather.

However, they say, the COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of uncertainty to an already risky business, by threatening to cut the season short.

Merrill MacInnis, a Victoria County fisherman out of Little River Harbour on the Atlantic Ocean, said the season is not off to a good start.

"January, it looked like it was going to be a bumper year, because demand was high, prices were going to be good, and that's all gone by the wayside now," he said.

Last year, fishermen were getting $7 a pound for lobster, but the current price is $4.25, a drop of about 40 per cent, and MacInnis said the catch has been down about 30 per cent on the Atlantic side of the island.

The price hasn't been that low for years, but MacInnis is hoping the catch will improve when the ocean bottom warms up.

Temperature a factor?

"The water is pretty cold yet and they don't seem to be moving quite as good as other years, so we're hoping that that's what the problem is," he said.

Jordan MacDougall, president of the Inverness South Fishermen's Association, said the catch in the Gulf of St. Lawrence hasn't been down as much as on the Atlantic side, but the season in the gulf was delayed two weeks due to COVID-19.

"It's been fair," he said. "I wouldn't say we're down anything like that. It's hard to get a read because we missed two weeks."

MacDougall said he, too, is hoping the season will get better as the ocean bottom warms up.

He said the extra uncertainty added by the pandemic has added a layer of risk to lobster harvesters.

He said processors are facing labour shortages and a collapsed world market, and there is some concern the summer season could be cut short.

Plants getting full?

"We're hearing the plants are starting to get filled up with lobsters [already]," MacDougall said.

Fishermen have always been able to separate lobsters for grading, but this year, fish plants are not buying those missing claws, known as culls, he said.

"The processors now don't want them," said MacDougall. "There's not enough money in it for them for the problems. They'd rather get the two-clawed lobsters."

Lobster fishermen can typically sell all that they catch, but fishermen fear processors could stop buying before the season is over, or they could put fishermen on a quota, said MacInnis.

Victoria County fisherman Merrill MacInnis says the weather has been good for fishing so far this spring, which is another unusual feature of this year's lobster season. (CBC)

"In all the times I've been fishing, we've never had the risk of buyers with the possibility they'd stop buying," he said.

MacInnis and MacDougall said they'll both know better in a couple of weeks as more product gets into the plants and the season closes at the end of May in southwest Nova Scotia.

MacInnis said the weather has been unusually good so far this season.

"We're able to haul every trap every day, which, ordinarily in the spring, the weather can be pretty unpredictable," he said.

It's been an unusual season in more ways than one, MacInnis said.

People used to come down to the wharf and buy lobster directly from fishermen, but with COVID-19 restrictions, the wharfs are off limits.

Wharfs now empty

Some fishermen are still selling to the public, but people have to preorder and meet somewhere away from the wharf or get it delivered.

"On Saturdays, especially, people would try and always get lobster for the weekend and the wharf would be full of people," MacInnis said.

"Now there's nobody here. There's signs all over the entrance to the harbour for not open to the public."

Wharf sales are not significant income for fishermen, but they are part of a longstanding local tradition and their absence is another sign this year is going to be one for the history books.

"I hope we're not going to be confronted with this again for another year, because it's certainly frustrating for us at this point," said MacInnis.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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