Lobster fishermen must demand change
The future vitality of the Maritime lobster industry is now in the hands of the fishermen themselves. Two recently released reports both reach the same primary conclusion: The only way for fishermen to break the cycle of low prices is to stop fighting each other and start cooperating for the collective good.
“Throughout the Panel’s discussions with industry, analyses of the many studies and reports available and our internal discussions and observations, we saw a distinct set of messages emerging. These messages portray an industry that has been struggling instead of cooperating, fishing for quantity instead of value, fighting over pennies and losing dollars and asking others to solve their problems,” states the Report of the Maritime Lobster Industry.
One report examined the lobster industry in the Maritimes, while the second focused on Prince Edward Island. Both paint a picture of dysfunction. Fishermen fish without knowing the price, or how it is established. The industry floods the market, rather than working to control the flow throughout the year, or expand markets. There is a necessity to collectively market Maritime lobster through establishment of a levy on each pound of lobster harvested. Fishermen complain of low prices without factoring such variables as a doubling of the Maritime catch in the past decade while the Canadian dollar has soared in value – a one-two combination that effectively drives the price paid to fishermen downward.
None of the observations should come as a surprise.
Record low prices this year were not unreasonable concludes the PEI report: “Although the price may not be considered reasonable by some in the industry, based on the above factors, and on no other evidence provided to the contrary, the 2013 price was realistic.”
Both reports describe an industry at a crossroads. Fishermen either can accept the status quo and continue fishing for a pittance, or fishermen, processors, buyers and government begin to work together to re-establish Maritime lobster as a premium product.
To call fishermen independent is an understatement. It is a by-product of embracing a way of life that is among the most dangerous in our society. We saw the downside of this independence during wharf tie-up this spring, a failed attempt to drive the shore price higher. Within days, fractures were exposed in the fishing community. Self-interest was put ahead of winning benefit for the greater long-term good. The PEI Fishermen’s Association was shown to be ineffective, its leadership more concerned with spouting irrelevant rhetoric than taking the necessary steps to lead.
Nothing has changed. Fishermen are still independent; the PEIFA is still ineffective and in dire need of a generational change in leadership.
For substantive change to occur ordinary fishermen must take the lead. The time of relying on the fishermen’s association or provincial government is long past. Individual fishermen need to step up and demand action on recommendations contained within the report. Creation of a marketing levy is a no-brainer. If fishermen won’t promote Maritime lobster why should taxpayers do it for them? Finding ways to better control the flow of product into the marketplace is a no-brainer? In the spring, there are 8,000 fishermen on the water, which guarantees a glut in the marketplace. Creating a transparent process for establishing the shore price before any boat leaves the harbour is a no-brainer. No one has ever offered a rationale explanation why fishermen must wait upwards of a week to know what their lobster is worth.
The lobster industry faces significant hurdles before it stabilizes, the biggest being trust. Leadership demands change. Some fishermen, perhaps even a majority, will object and loudly complain. Idle chat in coffee shops rarely solves anything. For those who choose to sit on the sidelines and throw barbs at mythical opponents, there is a simple question they must answer: What would they do differently to turn around the lobster industry?
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org