Labour 'a big issue' as P.E.I. fish processors prepare for spring season

It is unlikely P.E.I.'s seafood processors will have all the temporary foreign workers they normally have to operate in time for a regular start to the lobster season.

Processors working on assumption of May 1 season start, says association

One of the first tasks for lobster processors is redesigning the plants to allow for physical distancing between workers. (CBC)

It is unlikely P.E.I.'s seafood processors will have all the temporary foreign workers they normally have to operate in time for a regular start to the lobster season.

The P.E.I. Fishermen's Association is currently surveying its members to make a recommendation to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans about whether the season start date should change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jerry Gavin, executive director of the P.E.I. Seafood Processors Association, said there will be challenges for his members but they will get the job done if called upon.

"If lobster people fish, then processors are going to process," said Gavin.

Processors in P.E.I. are preparing on the assumption that the season will start on May 1 as usual, he said.

Gavin is confident the industry will be ready to go, and says the majority of members of his association support whatever decision the fishermen make.

However, a group of 24 processors from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has sent a letter to government officials asking for a two-week delay. Two of his P.E.I. processors also signed the letter, Gavin said: Seafood 2000 of Georgetown and South Shore Seafoods of in Bloomfield. 

"The undersigned companies have serious reservations about our ability to provide our hard-working employees with a safe working environment, despite our best intentions and tremendous efforts," says the April 9 letter.

Gavin recognizes there will be some significant hurdles.

"Labour is a big issue here on P.E.I.," said Gavin.

"Probably one-third of the workforce is temporary foreign workers. Those workers are probably not going to come in here on time. So processors are looking at trying to expand the local labour."

To be ready to start May 1, temporary foreign workers would have to arrive on P.E.I. next week — because they will need to quarantine for 14 days before they can go to the plants.

Gavin said he is hopeful some of the Islanders who have been thrown out of work by the pandemic will come to work in the plants. The industry will also target students, whose options for summer work have been curtailed.

Safety issues

Part of the planning for the season is about making the plants safe for workers during the pandemic.

"One of the most important things in the plant is physical distancing, that's extremely important," said Gavin.

To start with, he said, workstations will need to be separated by two metres. Workers would be checked regularly for any developing symptoms. There are also plans to spread the work out over more shifts, so there are not too many people in the plant at the same time.

Markets opening up

Once the lobster is processed, the next challenge processors will face is finding a market for it.

Two major markets for lobster — cruise ships and restaurant dining rooms — are shut down in North America right now. But Gavin said P.E.I. processors have an advantage because most of their product is frozen.

"It's shipped to Europe into the late summer, fall and into the winter. So those markets are good," he said.

"Eventually the U.S. market will open up again. So it's a matter of waiting to see how that market materializes."

There has been a lot of discussion among processors, fishermen and governments, said Gavin, and it's going to be important that the whole industry works together to figure out how to navigate this crisis.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning


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