Challenging spring lobster season ends with an eye to the future

Eddie Ramsay (left) and his crew member Jason Kennedy (right) unload part of their day’s catch at Milligan’s Wharf. Between things like quotas at the start of the season, to lower prices this year, the 2020 spring lobster season has been described as mediocre. The season has been extended to July 4, but some fishers plan on tying up at the end of June, feeling the extra few days might do more damage than good. Jillian Trainor photo

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As the spring lobster season draws to a close, fishers and processors alike reflect on what has been described as a mediocre season.

“At the first there were daily quotas, boat quotas for the first month, and then catches slackened a little bit,” said Jamie LeClair, captain of the Surf Dancer 1 in Northport. "It was challenging, for sure, but overall it’s a lot better than what I thought it was going to be.”

One of the challenges at the start of the year was the fact that the workforce at processing plants in the province was down by approximately 30 per cent, meaning they weren’t able to process all the lobster that was landed, which in turn was one of the reasons the quotas mentioned by My LeClair were created. 

The decrease in workforce was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many processors in the region employ temporary foreign workers. 

“We were down approximately 200 foreign workers when we started the season,” said Jerry Gavin, executive director of the PEI Seafood Processors Association. “Some plants were able to get temporary foreign workers throughout the season, and that helped.”

Mr Gavin said processing plants were able to hire local residents to help make up for the temporary foreign workers who were unable to arrive in the province. In the lead up to the start of the season, processors had to create a working environment in line with social distancing measures and regulations. This meant making modifications to their plants, including  providing personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, face shields, and masks to workers.

To help with this, the federal government has offered aid packages to processors, which is retroactive as of March 15.

“At the start of the season, there was a tremendous amount of cost going into preparing the plants,” said Mr Gavin. “There was a COVID-19 response plan developed by all the plants collaboratively, and that was all for COVID-19 protocols, everything from PPE, masks and shields, looking at modifications to the plant to, where possible, create some social distancing, going with Plexiglas where it was feasible. A tremendous amount of cost, and we’re very pleased that program is retroactive to March 15. A lot of the processors have applied to the program, and they’re looking forward to getting some of those reimbursements for some of the expense of costs to get the plants ready for the season.”

Normally the spring season would finish at the end of June, but this year it’s being extended to July 4, in part to make up for the delay to the beginning of the season because of the pandemic.

Some fishers question the merit of extending the season, while others are happy it’s taking place.

“It’s up to the individual, but I guess it’s alright,” said Eddie Ramsay, captain of the boat Twin Peaks out of Milligan’s Wharf. “Lobsters are scarce right now, but maybe they’ll pick up.”

Mr LeClair doesn’t agree with the extension, and plans on tying up at the end of June.

“I don’t think we need it,” he said. “I think the season has been half decent. That time of the year, fishing in July, there’s a lot of shorts, a lot of spawn, and lobsters are molting. I think it’s doing more damage than good.”

Mr Gavin remains optimistic about the end of the season.

“If you look at what folks were saying at the start of the year, it was pretty scary, but at the end of the day the markets held, the harvest was fairly good, so overall it’s just a matter of getting through this,” he concluded. “We didn’t expect folks to make a lot of money, but at the end of the day, if we get through this, and we have, we’ll certainly be better positioned hopefully for the fall and the spring season next year.”

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