Following a two week delay, the lobster spring season for many fishermen in the Maritimes is only days away. But as a result of COVID-19’s impact on the industry, there’s heightened anxiety and many questions about how the season will go.
Approximately 2,000 people are expected to fish in Lobster Fishing Areas (LFAs) 23, 24 and 26 when the season opens Friday, says the Maritime Fishermen’s Union. Those zones cover coastal areas near northern New Brunswick, the north shore of Prince Edward Island and waters between Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
“This year, we have unprecedented uncertainty with regards to the fishery on all fronts,” says Martin Mallet, the union’s executive director. “On the health and safety front, but also on the markets front and on whatever price they can get, and whatever volume they can get out of the water for lobster.”
Those are reasons, combined with the fact that its a seasonal industry, that Mallet says they’re looking for a seafood harvester-specific aid package.
“What, in general, we’re asking for, is to make already-existing programs adapted to our fishermen,” Mallet says. “Right now, most of our fishermen are not eligible for the programs announced to date.
“The level of anxiety is really, really high,” Mallet says.
Markets have plummeted amid closures to restaurants and more, while processing capacities are reduced as plants adjust health protocols as much as possible.
The temporary foreign worker ban in New Brunswick also has a significant impact on processing capacity for plants across the province, a Cape Bald Packers spokesperson previously told Global News.
In late April, the federal government announced a $62.5-million ‘Canadian Seafood Stabilization Fund’ for the fish and seafood processing sector.
A government news release said funding would support maintenance and inventory costs, added storage capacity for unsold product, and help businesses comply with new health and safety measures.
But the two week delay means those fishing during a typical nine week season will see about 20 per cent less time, if there is no extension in July. The Inverness South Fishermen’s Association says harvesters–mainly deckhands–could run into trouble, potentially not meeting E.I. requirements to cover the off season.
“On the back of the boat, it’s a different program; it’s a general program that anyone would get if you worked at a store or grocery store,” says Jordan MacDougall, the association’s president. “You’d have to have so many hours of eligibility, or time, in weeks to qualify.”
Some fishermen are discussing not heading out this year as a result of the health and market concerns, Mallet says.
Jane Deeks, the press secretary for Fisheries and Oceans Canada Minister Bernadette Jordan, tells Global News a financial aid package is coming for seafood harvesters, but there’s no timeline as to when that will be announced.