Canada set on boosting lobster’s value
Editor’s note: SeaFood Business Assistant Editor Melissa Wood attended this week’s St. Andrews Seafood Festival in New Brunswick, Canada.
Large, mostly anonymous, but with a story to tell, the Canadian lobster industry could be compared to a sleeping giant that some would like to wake up.
“We have to market our competitive edge,” said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Canada Lobster Council. “We are the biggest producer of lobster in the world, but we don’t act like it.”
Irvine spoke at an industry symposium at the six-day St. Andrews Seafood Festival on Thursday. The event is designed to promote the quality and sustainability of New Brunswick fisheries, which also includes farmed salmon, oysters and herring.
In New Brunswick, 42 percent of the total seafood catch is lobster, making it a significant part of the economy here and the greater region. Canada’s east coast harvesters hauled in a record-breaking 125 million pounds in 2010.
While a recent trend in historically high catches has stalled this spring — catches are down 30 to 40 percent due to cold spring temperatures — those high catches in recent years combined with a recent downturn in the economy have brought prices down and hurt the industry. In response, the government and industry have been looking for ways to get more value for their product.
Irvine, who cited the 2010 report “Long Term Value Strategy for the Canadian Lobster Industry” by Gardner Pinfold, said some of those strategies include identifying key markets, pushing premium products and branding the Canadian catch just like other regions have developed marketing strategies for their products, such as U.S. beef and Florida oranges.
Irvine said the industry also needs a better method for setting shore prices by better managing the supply flow. With no quotas in the industry, he explained, there is no idea what is going to be landed each year. And shore prices should reflect the quality of the lobster.
“A harvester should be paid to bring in the best quality, but at the moment it’s pretty much a standard price,” said Irvine.
The Paturel International lobster facility, which is located on nearby Deer Island, is set up with the very idea that every lobster is not created equal in mind. The facility, which opened its doors for attendees of the St. Andrews Seafood Festival, is unique in that it has facilities for handling live lobster and processing lobster. Employees learn to identify which ones are suitable for long journeys to lucrative overseas market — lobsters were being packed in boxes for Russia during the tour — or the short trip to the processing plant.
“Every single lobster that we buy can go into a market that will bring us the most value,” said Stuart McKay, the plant’s general manager.
One story that those in the industry would like to tell is about their product’s sustainability. At Paturel, one of the company’s sustainability initiatives include helping to fund a program that releases stage five larvae into concrete shelters on the ocean floor. So far, 1.5 million have been released in the last eight years. The company plans to sell lobsters in Sweden in a “one-for-one” initiative: Each lobster a customer buys will be replace by a new one released into the ocean.
But for its sustainability efforts and high catches, American lobster doesn’t fall under any third-party certification programs, and the highly fragmented nature of the inshore fishery makes that a difficult prospect. In Canada, there are more than 9,500 licenses based out of 40 fisheries.
“The lobster industry is very complex — it’s large [and] it’s tough to get everybody together in a large scheme,” said Irvine in an interview after his presentation. “We know our fishery is very sustainable. It’s just a question of proving it.”
Irvine said a couple lobster landing areas, including Prince Edward Island, have done pre-certification for the Marine Stewardship Council. But the momentum right now is around developing standards based on FAO guidelines and certifying them with an independent third-party, much like Alaska has done with the Global Trust.
“I think we can do that in Canada,” said Irvine. “We have a very good food-inspection program. We can back it up.”