Friday, 10 August 2012

Asking the Right Questions about Lobster

I've been diverted by some summer projects, mostly fun, including golf and going to the beach.  PEI is a very special place in the summer.

Fires in grain fields remind us how hot and dry it is, and of course it's much worse in many other places.  We'll  hear a lot about "yields" in the next few months, something that took me a while to understand.   It's potato growers who sell to the french fry plants that will be especially hard hit. They negotiate a price based on normal harvest yields, and the profit level is already slim.  In a "per pound" payment system, fewer pounds, and smaller potatoes (don't get those quality bonuses that can help the bottom line),  will hurt. For those selling into fresh markets things should be better. The last time there was a drought in 2001, fresh table prices were over 20 cents a pound, three to four times higher than normal. It doesn't mean a big payday because farmers have fewer potatoes to sell, but the higher prices will help, and some farmers with reasonable yields admit  they  never made so much money.  As consumers we may see smaller potatoes allowed in consumer packs, and pay a little more, but compared to cost increases in everything else,  this will hardly be noticed.

Thinking about supply and demand, I can't ignore the challenges faced by lobster fishermen getting ready for what's called the Fall Season. I did a lot of reporting on the lobster industry, and met a lot of smart people who taught me a thing or two that seem very relevant to what's going on now.

We've heard a lot about "soft-shell" lobsters and "shedders" referring to the tons of lobster coming up from Maine to plants in the Maritimes.  Unlike Canadian lobstermen (I explained once why I just can't use the term "fisher"), those in Maine  can fish year-round, with as many as 1200 traps. That compares to 300 or so in the Maritimes, with sharply defined seasons.   Creatures like lobster with hard shells on the outside can only grow by shedding their skin, and growing a new one. It's also the time when female lobsters lay their eggs which sit on the outside shell (they're called berried lobster). Fishermen are supposed to throw them back in the water.  But here's the thing, the soft shelled lobsters that are caught in Maine are of poor quality,  and are then processed here and labelled  a "Product of PEI".  So what we've ended up with is very depressed lobster prices because of the poor quality of the U.S. lobster, and sub-standard product going to the marketplace from PEI. Presumably Maritime processing plants have made some money buying cheap lobster with a high Canadian dollar, but it's hard to see any other winners in this.  Throw in the risk of lobster diseases coming North, with waste water going untreated from plants here back into local waters, and there are even more questions.  Yes there would be less work for plant workers, and Maine lobstermen would lose a traditional market, but biologically, and economically what's going on now doesn't make any sense.

Perhaps the more important question is whether there should be a fall lobster season at all.  It started I'm told because a century ago there weren't the kinds of holding facilities now in use that can keep lobster in suspended animation and in excellent quality for months.  Having a Fall season back then spread out the marketing opportunities over a longer period of time. There were also a lot of farmers who needed to do Spring work, and wanted to fish later in the Summer. None of these things apply any more, it's simply tradition. Lobster scientists insist that this is not the right time to be catching lobster while they go through molting, and their reproductive cycle. I don't know how this question gets some serious consideration, but it should.

One more thing to think about. Ever since the downturn in the economy in 2008 lobster has changed from a luxury food with a high price available at white table cloth restaurants, to a much lower priced commodity. This has helped move lobster into burgeoning Asian markets, but it's turned lobster fishing from a pretty lucrative business, into something very marginal (now fishermen understand what farmers have been going through).  Again our old economic pals "supply and demand" are at play.  We understand demand going down, but it's the supply side that many miss. Like all shellfish, lobsters can reproduce at incredibly high levels, millions of eggs laid every year. It used to be that most of these tiny lobster larvae would be food themselves for groundfish like cod, but with the groundfishery in steep decline, more and more of these lobster larvae are surviving to maturity.  A lobster biologist once told me that while we all celebrate sustained and higher lobster catches, from an ecological point of view it's an indication of an ecosystem totally out of balance. 

It's an extraordinary sight every Spring to see  boats heading out, and another twenty million pounds of  lobster taken out of PEI waters. Talk about a renewable resource. Maybe now with stocks in good shape, and the Spring price at least reasonable,  fishermen and processors can ask some harder and more basic questions. Traditions are good, common sense can be even more important.

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