Lobster Fishing is Becoming An International Boon for The Maritimes

By Angus Gillespie

For many decades the Maritime Provinces have most often lagged behind the other regions of Canada in terms of economic development, but as of 2015 there has been a pleasantly surprising turnaround. The driving force behind the significant improvement has a lot to do with the fishing industry, and especially the dramatic increase in popularity of lobster and the potential international market demand that beckons.

Lobster is Canada’s most valuable seafood export and an iconic Canadian species exported to more than 50 countries around the world. Lobster fishing is most active in the Gulf of Maine, Bay of Fundy, Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence and coastal Nova Scotia. Lobsters are caught in baited traps placed on the bottom of the sea. Most fisheries take place in shallow waters less than 40 metres deep and within 15 km of shore, although some fisheries (areas 34-38) will fish much farther out and in waters up to 200 metres deep.

The fisheries industry that was the primary attraction for the first European settlers in the late 1700s and ever since then it has been defined by cycles of boom and bust, whereby fishermen have both enjoyed periods of plentiful harvest and financial gain and also suffered through periods of hardship and unemployment. Even in down times, many fishermen had little to no desire to get out of the occupation that had shaped their families, communities and culture. The good news is that the past few years have been trending far more towards the boom territory, and given the vastly untapped, but very interested international market, the future bodes well for its continuing success.

One of the more sizable hurdles for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to overcome has always been the spread of the population base where almost 50% of the people live in small communities of 5,000 or less. By comparison, only about 20% of the rest of the population across Canada is considered rural.

New Brunswick has predominantly been anchored primarily by public-sector jobs and also natural resources, and oil in particular. Nova Scotia has traditionally been driven by natural resources, especially the fish stocks off the Scotian Shelf. In Prince Edward Island the economy is dominated by the seasonal industries of agriculture, tourism, and fisheries. The province is limited in terms of heavy industry and manufacturing, although it’s hoped the presence of the large food conglomerate McCain’s could be a sign of more things to come. This year, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia should see real GDP growth of 2.3% and 1.5%, respectively, largely due to the upswing in fisheries. New Brunswick’s economy is forecasted to contract by 0.4% due to the continued slump in the oil sector. Otherwise, it too would have expanded in 2016. Singularly, the unexpected shutdown of the Piccadilly potash mine delivered a significant blow to the province’s mining sector.

Lobster fishing across the Maritimes has developed into a major success story and has continued to gain momentum since last year largely due to the vastly increased demand for the tasty crustaceans on an international level, and most notably several countries in Asia, including China. Fishermen are hauling in record catches that are commanding the highest prices in well over a decade. There is also a push to generate a larger market in Europe beyond France and Belgium.

The noticeable uptick has also helped propel other employment sectors as well, not the least of which is the boating builders. Aside from requiring trucks that can cost upwards of $70,000, fishermen are also now in a position to buy newer, faster and more efficient boats. In fact, an executive with the Nova Scotia Boatbuilders Association has said it’s gotten to the point where they cannot keep up with demand – and that’s a very nice problem to have. It’s the busiest those manufacturers have been in well over a decade.

One of the reasons why boat builders are having a difficult time in matching the growing demand is the amount of time it takes to build one of these large sea-worthy vessels, which typically cost between $500,000 and $700,000. The newest generation of boats include such new features as live wells, which keeps lobsters alive in freshly circulated seawater. Keeping lobsters healthy translates into higher value at the dock and their sale to the marketplace.

Demand for lobster has especially been ramped up on the international markets thanks in large part to the weaker Canadian dollar. Many countries, and specifically their federal governments, are shifting towards processed meats in everything from lobster rolls to lobster macaroni and cheese.

The dollar, which has been hovering just below 80 cents U.S. for some time now, has also resulted in increased sales to the American market, which still accounts for 80% of all Canadian lobster sales worldwide. But the biggest push remains the largely untapped Asian market, where there are still close to one billion potential customers.

The federal government has recognized the resurgence in the popularity of lobster and is helping to promote it to other governments. During a recent trip to China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with officials from the Alibaba Group, which is now selling Canadian lobsters through its ecommerce website.

“China has been the main improvement in the market,” says Bernie Berry, President of the Coldwater Lobster Association.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages 45 lobster fisheries, in which 10,000 licensed harvesters across Atlantic Canada and Quebec participate. Lobsters are caught using baited traps placed on the bottom of the sea. Overall, lobster populations in Canada are healthy and sustainably managed.

Despite the euphoric turnaround, there are some international issues on the horizon that may have to be dealt with. Earlier in the summer the European Union said it would review a proposal from Sweden to ban lobsters from Canada and the United States because they are considered an invasive species. The matter was brought up once before with no action taken. This is at least the second time it has been brought to the EU’s attention. Its decision will have a large bearing on the future of European lobster sales, where an estimated 30 million pounds of live lobsters are sent from North America each year. Although the Asian market looks promising for the tremendous growth in the future, it takes considerable time to replace 30 million pounds by automatically relocating to another part of the world.

The lobster business is the most lucrative fishery segment in the country, producing more than $1 billion in commercial landings. Licenced enterprises in the Atlantic Provinces employ close to 35,000 harvesters. Last year almost 83,000 tonnes of Canadian lobster was exported to the U.S., Europe and Asia, generating in excess of $2 billion in revenue according to figures from Statistics Canada.

Further data reveals that 3,200 fishermen and deckhands collected 60 million pounds of lobster last year with prices points above $6 per pound, which translates into about $380 million in landed value – if not more. As a comparative, during the global economic downturn in 2009, the sale of lobster was at about $3 per pound, so it’s more than doubled since then.

The prosperity of the fishermen means they are more confident about being able to spend money, which in turn assists other segments of the economy. Last year’s haul produced records for Nova Scotia, which is the largest lobster generating province in the country.

It was a perfect storm in 2016, with excellent weather, the lower Canadian dollar, far more affordable fuel prices and the aforementioned burgeoning international markets, and Asia in particular. What really has the industry excited is the enthusiasm shown by China to have much more lobster sales from this country.

While the international markets are crucial to grow the lobster business, it’s always been very popular in the Maritimes and with the thousands of tourists who visit each year. It’s a veritable haven for consumers looking for a great lobster dinner. One of the more famous locations is Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound in Hall’s Harbour, where you can have the lobster of your choice and wait for it to be cooked while you casually walk down the wharf and watch lobster boats navigating the narrow harbour. There is also the Northumberland Fisheries Museum where you can learn all about the fishing industry on the East Coast. Other noted seafood restaurants that are popular with tourists and locals include: Shore Club Lobster Supper in Hubbards, Nova Scotia; Catch 22 Lobster Bar in Fredericton, New Brunswick; and Row House Lobster Co. in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. So, if you’re out in the Maritimes and seafood is a delicacy favourite, you’ll certainly be in the right location.

Annual Lobster Landings And Value:
(Source: Statistics Canada)

2013: 74,686 tonnes – $680.5 million
2012: 74,790 tonnes – $662.8 million
2011: 66,500 tonnes – $619.7 million

*Each of these three years produced export values of more than $1 billion.

Lobster landings are a primary indicator of abundance. There has been a general, upward trend in landings in recent decades.

There are 45 lobster fisheries throughout the Atlantic Provinces and Quebec, including one for the offshore fishery. They are tailored to meet the unique needs of each lobster fishery. Commonly used measures include limits to the number of licences, trap limits, length of fishing seasons, number of fishing days, total allowable catch quotas (in the offshore lobster fishing area) and lobster size restrictions.

Lobsters are active hunters, feeding on a variety of animals, including crab, shellfish, marine worms, starfish, sea urchins and fish. Larval and post-larval lobsters are prone to predation by crabs and finfish species. When outside their burrows, juveniles are prey for many fish species. Lobsters become less vulnerable to predation as they grow, except during moulting periods when they shed their hard outer shell.

– Lobster remains Canada’s top export species in terms of value, with 2015 exports of more than $2 billion.
Canada exported $6 billion in fish and seafood in 2015.

– About 85% of all fish and seafood landed by Canadian harvesters is exported.

– Canada’s most valuable exports by species in 2015 were lobster, snow (queen) crab, farmed Atlantic salmon and shrimp.

– The aquaculture industry generates over $1 billion in GDP and 14,000 job opportunities in direct and indirect employment.

– Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production activity in the world.

– Approximately 76,000 Canadians make their living directly from fishing and fishing-related activities.