Strikes, threats, secret ballots, and possible bankruptcies: Canada’s snow crab fishery in turmoil

Crab pots in a port in Newfoundland.

Canada’s snow crab fishing season is formally underway, but you couldn’t tell from a peek at the docks in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

A feud between the Fish Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW), representing fishermen, and the Association of Seafood Producers (ASP), representing processors, erupted into the open in April 2023, when the province’s Standard Fish Price-Setting Panel set a minimum price of CAD 2.20 (USD 1.63, EUR 1.49) per pound. FFAW leadership called for a strike, and thus far, there hasn’t been any snow crab fishing yet this season in the province.

FFAW President Greg Pretty said in a 3 May statement the fishers his union represents are being pressured to fish “at prices that are uneconomical to most owner-operators.”

FFAW’s leadership agreed at a meeting on Tuesday, 2 May to stand firm on their demand for a higher minimum price, asking for the provincial government to take action to “transparently set the prices paid to harvesters based on actual market, yield, and sales information.”

For its part, the ASP has called on the province’s fishers to begin fishing at the rate set through the agreed-upon formal process.

“I would like to reiterate that every day that goes by is another day of lost opportunity, compounding the competitive position of harvesters, plant workers, and producers, to extract value from the crab fishery,” ASP Executive Director Jeff Loder said in a 2 May statement.

Snow crab fishermen in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence had landed more than 60 percent of their total allowable catch, those in the Southern Maritimes Region had caught more than 16 percent of their TAC, and those in the Northern Maritimes Region had landed 74 percent of their TAC as of 5 May, receiving a price of CAD 2.25 (USD 1.68, EUR 1.52). Those regions have a TAC of around 44,000 metric tons, while Newfoundland and Labrador has a TAC above 54,000 MT, with not a single pound harvested thus far in the province.

“The longer the fishery is delayed, the greater impact it has on the premium product Newfoundland seafood is known for,” Loder said. “As the season progresses, the risk increases of exposure to softshell crab, briny tasting meat, and eventually new hardshell. We do not want Newfoundland product to be associated with inferior product versus the Maritimes and Gulf. Nor do producers want to curtail purchases due to these issues.

Loder alluded to threats made to Newfoundland fishers who want to commence fishing.

We have been informed that there are harvesters who want to begin fishing, however, they have not begun for reasons that should cause Newfoundlanders and Labradorians great concern,” Loder said. “Producers will always respect the decision of harvesters to not fish, a right enshrined in legislation, based on their individual business situation. Which is why when we hear those individual decisions are being impacted by fear, intimidation, and harassment, we feel an obligation to address the issue.”

The ASP represents 22 snow crab-processing facilities, each employing between 150 and 650 seasonal workers. Loder said those workers were suffering as a result of the lack of incoming crab.

“The economic impact of the delay in the snow crab fishery is significant. Not only does it affect plant workers, but also graders, equipment, packaging, and delivery companies, as well as local convenience stores, grocers, and restaurants,” he said. “The fishery is a catalyst for economic growth in which rural communities rely on.”

Previously, Loder said the ASP is willing to work with FFAW and the Canadian government to “[work on ways] we can maximize the value of the fishery through quality, trip limits, and structured purchases.”

“However, ASP will not discuss a minimum price outside the legal process that has been established...

Photo courtesy of Ramon Cliff/Shutterstock

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