Debate intensifies over Halifax airport shipping capacity

Nova Scotia’s CAD 1.8 billion (USD 1.4 billion, EUR 1.1 billion) seafood sector is basically all exported. A significant portion is trucked to market in New England. For the rest of the world, which includes long-standing European consumers and the growing Asian market, shipping by air is critical. 

At a February appearance before a legislative committee in Halifax, Nova Scotia, representatives of the seafood industry complained that the lack of shipping facilities are forcing them to drive product to airports in Boston, Montreal, and Toronto.

Leo Muise, executive director of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance, told the committee that the Gateway Facility at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, which provides 7,000 square feet of refrigerated warehouse – making it the largest such facility north of Miami – isn’t big enough to handle the amount of live lobster that needs to be shipped during peak demand periods such as Christmas and Chinese New Year. 

"There's just not enough capacity to move the amount of product that has to be moved on any individual day,” Muise said. ”The result is that product is then trucked to other airports like [Boston] Logan, like New York, like Toronto to be put in airplanes there."

Osborne Burke from the Victoria Co-operative Fisheries, in Neils Harbour, Nova Scotia, agreed. 

"The Gateway in Halifax does what they can with what flights they have, but a significant portion of lobsters that come in there are reloaded on trucks to Toronto and Montreal and [sent] down the highway and into Boston to be airfreighted,” Burke said.

Burke said he believes shipping lobster to Asia via Boston is confusing from a brand and reputational perspective. 

"Hence our continual challenge in Asia to make them understand that Boston lobster doesn't really come from Boston. It's Nova Scotia lobster that was driven down to Boston and put on a flight," Burke said.

In 2017, CAD 220 million (USD 168.6 million, EUR 137 million) in seafood was shipped through the airport. The airport authority has submitted a proposal to Transport Canada to create a 25-acre logistics park that would include a cargo handling buildings, new loading areas, a de-icing facility, and an apron large enough to accommodate up to four air cargo freighters simultaneously.

While the focus at the legislative hearing was on the facility, others in the lobster sector see a different problem. 

Geoff Irvine, executive director of The Lobster Council of Canada, said the real issue is lift.

“The to and fro of air freight is very complicated, with live shippers always wanting more. But (they) cannot provide consistent guarantee of volume, and airlines [want] consistent guarantee of volume before they will commit,” Irvine said. “There is very little back-haul into Halifax, so planes often come here empty, which is not fun for airlines. It is the ultimate chicken-and-egg, ‘build it and they will come’ gamble that airlines, which need profit, rarely will do.”

At Tangier Lobster, managing director Stewart Lamont wondered if the media reports of the hearing were taken out of context. 

“We have a superb facility in Gateway. We need, however, more flights with wide-body connections, especially to Asia,” Lamont said. “The market has grown beyond what we can support for seven to 10 months of the year. Companies are trucking to Toronto for direct flights to Asia. The elapsed time for shipments gets to be 40 to 60 hours.” 

Add in winter storms and the potential for delays grows, Lamont said. Quoting the old Yankee line, “You can’t get there from here,” Lamont says that’s how it sometimes feels when arranging live lobster shipments to Europe and Asia from Halifax. 

“Needless to say we are not Toronto or Montreal – Boston or New York either. We do not have the population base, and we do not have the carrier network. We do not have the critical mass,” he said. “We do have a modern airport with a terrific perishables handling facility, but to be in the air freight forwarding or shipment game from Halifax, Nova Scotia, you must first and foremost be rather creative.”

Lamont maintains that Halifax has sufficient lift for part of the year, but not a consistent level of service for the full year. 

“Somewhat shockingly, we have two levels of government actively promoting our seafood and resource products in Europe and Asia, with precious little consideration for the air freight logistical challenges inherently created,” he said. “It’s not a case of: ‘If we build it, they will come.’ It’s more a case of, if we promote it, can we get it there some which way or other?”


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