Support for fishermen affected by COVID-19 days away, says fisheries minister
Pandemic has already delayed start of the lucrative spring lobster fishery in Gulf of St. Lawrence
Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan says financial aid for fishermen in Atlantic Canada is days away.
The pledge comes amid both economic and health concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and $252 million in aid announced for Canadian farmers and food processors this week.
The pandemic has already delayed the start of the lucrative spring lobster fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as processors warn about slumping demand and their ability to safely process the glut that will arrive when catches land after the season opens May 15.
"We know that [harvesters are] going to have some very challenging times this season and we will have more to say about that and what we will be able to do in the coming days," Jordan said Tuesday during a virtual sitting of Parliament.
She said Ottawa has already extended employment insurance, made seasonal workers eligible for emergency benefits and announced $62.5 million for the seafood processing industry.
Jordan is under pressure from groups like the Maritime Fishermen's Union (MFU), which represents 1,300 lobster harvesters in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Contrary to Jordan's suggestions, the lobby group claims fishermen are not eligible for most of the recently announced federal programs that support businesses and other natural resource sectors.
It issued a news release Tuesday asking for:
- Extended EI benefits.
- Waiving and/or reimbursing all federal fees for 2020, including licensing fees, vessel registration fees and wharf fees.
- An adapted wage subsidy program.
- An expanded interest-free loan program.
Jordan repeated Tuesday what she has said repeatedly during the pandemic, namely that she is consulting with industry.
Cape Breton lobster fisherman Kevin Squires, who is also a local MFU president, said fishermen want to know the government has their back.
"Not so much a guarantee of money or assistance, as some support that if the season goes bust that we will have something to rely on where we have such a short season," Squires said.
Despite evidence that worldwide demand has tanked for what is a luxury product, the price at the wharf for lobster has so far defied gravity this spring, ticking up from lows of $4 a pound to $7 in Nova Scotia.
The prices are well below the highs of $13 a pound before the pandemic, but not a price crash either.
Squires said he hopes the price up isn't just being temporarily buoyed by Mother's Day.
"We're hoping that the price doesn't go down any further, but with the number of boats going fishing on the 15th of May, we're very fearful that such an influx of supply might cause problems in the market," he said.