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Canadian lobster protests revive memories of 2012

May 14, 2013

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Protests and blockades in Canada in recent days over low lobster prices are rekindling memories of last summer when Canadian fishermen angrily blocked truckloads of Maine-caught lobsters from being delivered to processing plants, but industry members in Maine aren’t expecting a repeat.

More than 2,000 lobstermen in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Quebec tied up their boats over the past week in protest, and some blocked lobster shipments at processing plants. Most lobstermen resumed fishing Tuesday, although several hundred in Prince Edward Island still refused to haul their traps.

The protests aren’t directly connected to Maine, where the lobster catch is light this time of year. Rather, they’re a show of frustration about continuing low prices and the way prices are set, said Christian Brun, executive secretary of the Maritime Fishermen’s Union, which represents about 1,300 fishermen in New Brunswick.

Brun doesn’t expect a recurrence of last summer when some Canadian fishermen blocked truckloads of Maine lobsters at processing plants, blaming Maine’s harvest for driving down prices in Canada. The blockades brought Canada’s lobster-processing industry to a near-standstill, created anxiety in Maine’s lobster industry and led to calls for then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to intervene.

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing the same events as last year,” Brun said. “We’ve spent eight months intensively talking to our harvesters in New Brunswick and having them understand the consequences of blocking trucks and doing that kind of action. Last year, nobody expected (such low prices) because the markets were doing so well in the spring and all of the sudden they crumbled and collapsed.”

Last year’s record spring catches in Maine and in Canada resulted in a glut of lobsters on the market and 1990s’ prices paid to fishermen. For the year, Maine fishermen caught a record 126 million pounds of lobster but received only $2.69 a pound on average, the lowest price since 1994.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said tensions between Canada and Maine fishermen should ease this summer because everyone’s more prepared, market conditions have improved and nobody’s anticipating an early season lobster glut like last year.

“Last summer was a season of extremes,” she said. “Almost everything that happened was unpredictable, was outside of the norm. Circumstance after circumstance was keeping people off guard. In 2013, we’re collectively more prepared for the unexpected.”

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said he gets daily briefings from a staffer on what’s been happening in Canada. It appears that Maine won’t have the large early season volume it had last year and that Canadian processors are prepared in case there is an influx, he said.

“The big issue is Canadian fishermen reacting to a downturn in prices, whether they’re ready for the volume or not,” he said.

Still, it’s unprecedented to have fishermen from all over Atlantic Canada tie up their boats at the same time in solidarity, said Ian MacPherson, executive director of the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association, which represents more than 1,250 lobstermen.

Blake Wood, a fisherman from Beachpoint, Prince Edward Island, said he and two other fishermen late last week hauled out their boats to block the entrance to a lobster-processing plant while 100 or so fishermen protested outside. Maine fishermen should also tie up their boats to keep product off the market in hopes of driving up prices, he said.

“We’re just reaching out to them for an Eastern Seaboard tie-up to shut down the markets,” he said. “We need help. If you shut down the markets, the brokers hurt.”

The Canadian protests spurred the Prince Edward Island premier and the fisheries ministers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to meet with fishermen on Monday. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged fishermen and seafood producers to resolve the dispute.

“Obviously, we are concerned by what we’re seeing in the marketplace,” Harper said Tuesday while in Prince Edward Island. “We obviously encourage the fishermen and processors to work to find a solution to some of the market difficulties in this particular area.”

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