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Lobster tale needs an ending

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A lobster fisherman carries a trap at the North Rustico, P.E.I. warf.


A lobster fisherman carries a trap at the North Rustico, P.E.I. warf.

CORNWALL, P.E.I. -- For P.E.I. lobster fishermen, it is a case of "no news is good news."

Lobster is the main species caught off Island waters -- an industry that is worth approximately $54 million annually to the P.E.I. economy. Unlike its sister Maritime provinces, most of the catch falls into the category of what are commonly known as "canners." Even the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association and the provincial government admit the name doesn't exactly tempt consumer taste buds and they have been thinking about changing it. They have yet to agree, however, on a new name.

These are the smallest lobsters that can legally be caught, and the Island industry has been working to develop markets in Europe and Asia for what is essentially a niche market. They have had some success, although for the past several seasons they have been dealing with the reality of low prices due largely to the global economic downturn.

For the last six months, the Island fishery has been involved in a war of words with its counterparts in New Brunswick over carapace size. The carapace size is essentially the smallest size lobster that can legally be caught. If you are trying to develop a market for small lobsters, you want the gauge used to determine the size to be as small as possible.

If, on the other hand, you are selling larger market lobster, a bigger carapace size is desirable. The question is always thorny, and it is especially so in the fall lobster fishery in the waters of Northumberland Strait. Here, P.E.I. and New Brunswick share a fishing zone, but competing interests.

The Island fishermen feel an increase of one millimetre to 72 mm achieves both conservation of stocks and the survival of a canner fishery. Both P.E.I. and New Brunswick fishers agreed to the increase.

Then the interprovincial war broke out. New Brunswick announced it was asking federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield to increase the size another millimetre. They also wanted a commitment to increase another millimetre each year until it reached a minimum size of 77 mm.

Ashfield's response was essentially "work it out among yourselves." A series of meetings were held throughout the winter and spring, but nothing was accomplished. Then, with just a few weeks to go before the start of the season, the federal minister made an announcement.

While it was billed as a "ministerial decision," it was nothing of the sort. The minister said the one-millimetre increase that had originally been agreed to by both provinces would go ahead. He was "disappointed" the two sides had not been able to make a decision and he "reluctantly" had to act -- by putting in place the only thing the two sides had agreed to.

To be fair, the fisheries dispute is not the most important think on Ashfield's mind right now. He is battling cancer and will leave cabinet when Prime Minister Stephen Harper shuffles his inner circle -- a move expected in weeks, if not days.

That means he won't be dealing with the controversial issue. He did offer some advice for his successor in his statement. He is hoping an expert panel the three Maritime governments put in place following a tie up of boats in early May to protest low prices will weigh in on the issue.

Whether that happens or not is anybody's guess. Each province got to appoint an "expert" so consensus could be hard to reach on that issue for them as well -- that is if they even tackle it. Their mandate is to explore ways Maritime lobster can be better promoted and to examine way to increase prices: They will likely have enough on their plate without trying to make a tough decision easier for the new federal fisheries minister.

While it will obviously be status quo for the 2013 fishing season, nothing has changed. It is still fishermen verses fishermen with no end in sight. The Island fishermen maintain the move is being driven by large New Brunswick processors. The New Brunswick fishermen said their markets are drying up because their market lobsters are simply too small compared to others from Canada and the eastern United States.

The new fisheries minister should make this one of their first priorities. Fishermen on both side of Northumberland Strait obviously feel their livelihood is threatened and the situation won't get any better the longer things go on.

The Island fishermen have suggested separate rules for different parts of the zone -- a move some the New Brunswick fishermen adamantly reject. However, it should be at least looked at by the new minister. A "real" decision has to be made in relatively short order.


A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media syndicated columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for more than 30 years.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2013 A15

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