While New Brunswick lobster fishermen have had to deal this past week with some miserable windy weather, which delayed the expected November 14 start of the season by a day, they are continuing to enjoy record catches and good prices. "It's all very positive right now -- all sizes, berried lobsters, short lobsters," says Laurence Cook, chair of the Lobster Sector for the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association. While the catches for North Head boats may be "off a bit," Cook, who fishes out of Seal Cove, notes that when one is "talking from an all-time high" last year, looking at the long-term average catches "it's still way, way up. It can't always be the best year ever."
Cook has been expecting catches to drop each year for the past several years, but instead they keep increasing. He remembers that when he started fishing in 1990 he landed 1,800 pounds of lobsters in a day, "and I was in the middle of the pack. Now they haul more than 10,000 pounds in a day, and some are getting more than 10,000 pounds. That's considered normal now."
"There are lots of sublegal lobsters, lots of berried lobsters. There are lots of signs the lobster fishery is in good shape. I don't understand how it's possible, but I'm seeing it," says Cook. "I'm just hoping and praying it continues as it has. We've had an incredible 10 years, and I hope we have 10 more."
Stuart McKay, manager of Paturel International's operations on Deer Island, agrees with Cook that landings are continuing to be strong, "although somewhat spotty" so far this year. Deer Island catches have been as good as last year, while the offshore boats and those fishing along the mainland are picking up a bit more than last year.
The quality has been good, although the offshore boats are bringing in quite a few soft-shelled lobsters and the quality is poorer than last year, according to McKay. For those lobsters that are processed, the meat yields are much lower.
McKay observes that the northwest and westerly winds since the opening on November 15 have caused "pretty tough working conditions for the guys," and fishermen missed parts of some days for hauling, which slowed down the fishing effort. "It's been a bit of a roller-coaster with the weather."
Because the Maine lobster fishery also has had to deal with windy weather, there has been more demand for the live market than for frozen product. McKay says there's less interest in the frozen market across the board this year, while the live market has been moderate, with the Maine fishery down a bit. He says both the live and frozen markets are down some in customer interest.
The price paid to fishermen has averaged around $6.25 a pound, which is the same as two years ago and about 25 cents less than last year. McKay says that the exchange rate between the U.S. and Canadian dollars has shifted some, giving Canadian buyers less margin to work with. Last year the U.S. dollar was worth $1.35 Canadian, and this year it is about $1.28. "It's hurting us some selling into the U.S. market," says McKay, noting that a lot of seafood is traded in U.S. dollars.
For the fishermen, the price is considered good. Although bait, fuel and labor prices are significant, Cook notes that as long as there "are lots of lobsters" and the price is good then those costs are of less concern. "It's very expensive to haul traps," he observes. "It's fine as long as it's lucrative to do so." He points out that fuel and bait can cost $100,000 for a boat, and he pays each of his two crew members more than he does for fuel and bait.
'They need to put money in the bank'
While a sternman on a lobster boat can make $50,000 to $60,000 in a month at the start of the fall season and some fishermen may make a quarter of a million dollars in a year, they sometimes don't spend it wisely or save some for the future, says Cook, who notes that the same happens with workers in the oil fields. "We hand them too much money too quickly," and they have "a lot of fun" and buy a $70,000 truck or a beautiful new home that one usually can only afford to purchase after working most of one's life. By Christmas time the landings have settled back down and by mid-January lobstering is "a small percentage of what it is now." Their income then plummets. If they've borrowed money for a new truck, they can end up in trouble financially.
"It's hard for young people to remember that it isn't going to continue," says Cook. "They need to put money in the bank and put money aside for retirement. They need to put money in a rainy day fund."
Cook notes that he's living in the same house that he bought with his wife when he was a 21 years old. "I'm trying to put money in the bank for when it [the fishery] goes back to normal. Some think the high we've been on is normal. It's not normal."
Paturel dealing with loss of plant
The loss of Paturel's secondary lobster plant in Lambertville, which was destroyed by fire on September 23, has had some effect on the company's processing this year. "We could deal with 30,000 to 40,000 pounds a day at this time," McKay says, while now they are trying to balance the volume Paturel handles with the company's other plants. Paturel plans to rebuild the facility on the island but is still working with insurance companies.
The company currently has about 140 to 160 workers at its Deer Island plant in Northern Harbour, with the number growing by 10 or 20 around Christmas. The number of Filipino workers is about the same as last year, at 75 to 80.
Grey Zone fishery
Cook says the fishery in the Grey Zone, the disputed area around Machias Seal Island that is fished by Americans and Canadians, was "very unfriendly" this year, with lots of gear being cut. Because the Maine and Grand Manan fishermen set in different directions, and Grand Manan fishermen fish 25 to 50 trap trawls, while Maine fishermen have 12 to 15 trap trawls, the trawls often get crossed over. "It's not always fun," remarks Cook.