Snow crab season faces delay, lobster market eviscerated in Canada

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has delayed the start of the snow crab fishing season in Newfoundland and Labrador. It said market conditions and logistical complications resulting from the coronavirus crisis led to its decision to postpone until at least 20 April.

The decision came after the Fish, Food and Allied Workers (FFAW-Unifor) union of Newfoundland and Labrador pushed for a delay.

“This situation is unprecedented on many levels,” it wrote in a 25 March letter to its members. “Fish harvesters are committed to social distancing and doing their part to flatten the curve of COVID-19 here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Ensuring all of our members and their families stay safe is the number one priority right now.”

Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne said in a press release the province’s fisheries should not be opened until “conditions are safe for fishermen and plant workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.” He called for the federal government to support fishermen and seafood industry workers until they can safely return to work.

The Association of Seafood Producers, a trade association representing processing companies in the province, said it hoped the season would start without further delay on 20 April. In an interview with The Journal Pioneer, ASP Executive Director Derek Butler acknowledged that the traditional markets for snow crab have all but disappeared as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but said his organization still sees potential avenues for sales.

"The restaurant trade is dead. There's no cruise ships traveling or ordering snow crab or any seafood product. But all of the food in North America that otherwise would have gotten consumed in restaurants, casinos, and cruise ships, all of that is now going to be consumed in retail. There's pressure in retail ... Sobeys and Dominion, people are very busy,” Butler said. “There's lot of sales, and sales are up because ... everything that gets eaten has to come out of a retail shop or a deep freeze at home. We sell CAD 1 billion [USD 708 million, EUR 655 million] of seafood every year, and the world will want that seafood production. It has to come from somewhere."

Butler said the members of his association had put a plan in place to keep its workers as safe as possible following their return to work.

"Reduce the shifts, reduce capacity, put dividers between work stations, keep people out of the lunchrooms – all that stuff needs to be done, and that's going to take time,” he said.

But FFAW-Unifor President Keith Sullivan said his union was not prepared to return to work 20 April unless it was certain there was no serious risk to its members’ health.

“The vast majority of harvesters are prioritizing safety over the profits of processing companies,” Sullivan said. “The worst of this pandemic is yet to come. We will not recommend an opening to the fishery if our members are at risk.”

A little less than a month ago, a similar debate played out in Nova Scotia’s lobster fishery, with buyers and processors are calling for a halt to the province’s season, which at that point was just open in lobster fishery areas (LFAs) 33 and 34.

That didn’t come to pass, according to Leo Muise, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance.

“There’s no longer any talk about closing it,” Muise told SeafoodSource. “There was a suggestion from buyers and processors that the lobstermen consider it, and they considered it and said no, because as long as one person is willing to buy something, somebody will be willing to sell it.”

Fishermen are receiving CAD 5.00 (USD 3.54, EUR 3.27) per pound, down from what is typically CAD 10.00 to CAD 11.00 (USD 7.08 to USD 7.78, EUR 6.55 to EUR 7.21) per pound in early April, Muise said. That’s because the European market has essentially zeroed out and the U.S. market has contracted into sales solely to supermarket chains.

But Muise said it’s not all bad news. Last month, the wharf price was CAD 4.00 (USD 2.83, EUR 2.62) per pound. The price has “started to make a little bit of a comeback” with the Asian market – and particularly China’s – making a small recovery, he said.

“It was at zero percent, and now I would say it’s at about 20 percent of what it was at peak,” he said.

Muise said another positive is that all the different groups with a commercial interest in the lobster industry are working together to try to find consensus on a path forward.

“Everyone is all talking to each other,” he said. “Right now, there are a lot of discussions between the groups, trying to evaluate the situation and come up with a plan.”

There is talk that LFAs 36 and 37, in the Bay of Fundy between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, which had their opening dates pushed back a month until 30 April, may be granted the lost fishing days at the end of their season in June, Muise said.

Muise said the decision was made not just because the price for lobster is so low at the moment, but also because most flights out of the province have been canceled.

“There used to be dedicated flights for lobster, and passenger flights with extra room in their cargo bays. That’s gone,” he said. “The next issue is, how do we get our transport back?”

Also, there’s the simple fact that, for some in the industry, going to work is simply not yet safe, Muise said.

“Employees don’t want to go to work and catch this virus from one of their buddies, so they’re staying home,” he said.

Muise said he was hesitant to make a prediction on when the market would turn around.

“The whole point is everything is changing day-to-day. Tomorrow could be totally different one way or the other,” he said. “As for spring, nobody knows for sure what will happen, what the market will be. But right now, it’s getting serious.”

Lobster Processors Association of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia President Jerry Amirault echoed Muise’s sentiments in a press release.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is creating unprecedented uncertainty and damage to our traditional lobster markets in the United States, Europe, and Asia. As of today, market indications are distressing. Many believe 2020 will be much worse than the combined impact of the 2008 economic crisis and the 2012 glut season,” he said. “Looking ahead, experts predict we are likely looking at a minimum of two months of crippling economic conditions and major customers can provide us with no visibility as to when market conditions will recover. In the event that finished product cannot be sold during the spring season, cash flow pressures will be severe. To compound the problem, cold-storage availability is already severely compromised in Atlantic Canada, with several major third-party freezers who typically hold our inventories already advising they are at capacity.”

Amirault praised the Canadian government’s quick response to provide financial assistance to the sector, and the processing sector’s efforts to make workplaces safe.

“That said, we must be clear-eyed in recognizing that our workforces are likely to be highly impacted by absenteeism, flexible sick leave, constraints dictated by public health considerations and potential quarantines. It would be the height of irresponsibility to put lives at risk in order to maintain business operations,” he said.

Right now, the tentative plan is to aim for a 1 May start for the main harvesting season in the region, Amirault said, while warning his members that this season “will not be normal for any industry stakeholders.”

“If it is the wish of the harvesters to proceed with a 1 May start, Canadian processors will be ready to receive product and manage the situation as best as we can,” he said. “More time will hopefully provide some clarity on market demand and give us more confidence on workforce availability. By then, we all hope we will have turned the corner on this unfolding COVID-19 crisis.”

Photo courtesy of Threerocksimages/Shutterstock


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500