Saturday, 8 December 2012

Way Too Much of a Good Thing

There is irony in all of this, but that allows for a kind of intellectual detachment that this doesn't deserve.  I just  find it really sad.  There were record catches of lobster last year (almost 27 MILLION pounds on PEI alone, more than 100 MILLION pounds in Maine). Good news you might think? It's anything but.

The big catches are bankrupting fishermen, and researchers at the University of Maine say there's something worse going on, the over abundance of lobster is a clear sign of the collapse of the ocean ecosystem. A story this week finally did it for me:
( )

A graduate student had tethered a juvenile lobster to the bottom of the ocean. and using an infrared camera filmed bigger lobsters cannibalizing it at night.  In close quarters lobsters will fight and eat each other, but this had never been seen before.

Shellfish population dynamics are interesting. Females are capable of producing  millions of eggs every year, and in a healthy ecosystem, just a small percentage would survive. Most of the tiny larvae that float with the current and tides would be eaten by groundfish like cod and haddock. But of course these predators have been overfished, so many, many more lobsters grow up and reproduce themselves.

There has been enormous effort and resources put into improving lobster habitat, protecting productive females, and so on to maintain lobster stocks which have become the cornerstone of so many coastal communities in the Maritimes and the U.S. North East, but to what end.

The important South West Nova Scotia lobster fishery is just underway, and already fishermen are threatening to pull their traps.

"This glut, combined with the economic downturn in Europe and the United States and fewer people buying lobster, is driving down the price to $3 a pound. There are fears it could go as low as $2."

It would be easy to say that processors and brokers are to blame for all of this, but, while some are no doubt making a bundle, it's more complicated than that.  They're simply doing what our economy tells them to do, buy as cheap as you can, and sell for more. So yes there are $3.00 lobsters ending up on white table cloths in restaurants at eight or ten times that price, but those restaurants charge that  because they can, and fishermen should be glad there are people willing to spend that much for seafood. And yes processors are filling up the freezers with cheap lobster, which in turn will impact on fishermen's ability  to get a better price next Spring when the whole cycle starts again. My biggest complaint with processors (see ) is the poor quality lobsters Maritime processors were importing and packing last Fall.  The only quality of these lobsters was that they were cheap.

So that brings us to the role of fishermen in all of this. The one thing they can control is the amount of lobster landed at the wharf. Catching as much as you can is not difficult, but it's not much of a marketing strategy. Looking at the marketplace, talking to other fishermen, meeting with fishermen from other areas, planning catch targets, pulling traps or lowering fishing effort if the market is glutted, these are all things fishermen have in their power to do, but despite several efforts over the last few years, it's hard to think of  any success of fishermen working together, other than opposing any suggestion that the catch be curtailed through  raising carapace size,  leaving traps on the wharf, etc.

Let's think about the lobster size issue for a moment. Prince County fishermen have already said they'll fight any effort to make the legal size of lobster bigger. Their argument has some merit, that PEI's processing industry has built its business on the smaller so called "canner" lobster. That's different from the larger "market" lobster that ends up in fresh markets. What if processors would acknowledge that their labour costs go down when fishermen deliver a slightly bigger lobster (the meat yield goes up with bigger lobster,  fewer lobsters are needed to fill cans or frozen packs) and processors should assure fishermen they'll get more because of this. (I know how naive that sounds). Then fishermen would have good reason to increase the size requirements. I know this will just end up as a big shouting match, with acting Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea from Tignish caught in the middle.

The image of lobsters eating each other in some kind of underwater Mad Max resource-depleted desert is very depressing. Watching fishermen, and fishing communities lose confidence in the future is equally as discouraging.  This will take leadership and working together to solve.

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