By Tina Comeau
A majority of lobster licence holders from lobster fishing area (LFA) 34 who have been plagued by low lobster prices for the past few seasons opted not to vote in favour of trying something different for the upcoming season.
Two proposals were put forward to licence holders by the LFA 34 Management Board, which were voted on following a Sept. 25 meeting. One proposal called for a trap reduction, which would have seen fishermen fish 300 traps for the first three months of the season, as opposed to 375 traps, and then see them fish 350 traps for the last three months of the season, as opposed to fishing 400 traps between April 1 and May 31.
The second proposal called for a one-week season opening delay.
On the vote for a trap reduction, 297 licence holders voted in favour of less traps but 456 licence holders vote no.
On the vote for a one-week delay to the opening of the season, 257 licence holders voted in favour of a delay, but 495 voted against it.
As a result, the LFA 34 Management Board will not be recommending any changes to the upcoming season. However the board will continue discussions with buyers prior to the start of the season.
“We’ll keep going,” said LFA 34 Management Board chair Jeff d’Entremont after the votes were tallied. He said fishermen will go fishing the last Monday of November and they’ll fish the same number of traps they always have. “As of now, from what I see here, we leave it as is and keep going.”
Yet despite the vote it’s been clear during the past few seasons that “as is” isn’t working. Asked what message this vote delivered: whether it was that the proposal was too drastic, or that there was too much uncertainty as to whether it would benefit fishermen, d’Entremont speculated that it was a little of both.
“I think it was both. Maybe it was too drastic for 300 at first, it might have worked out with 350,” he said.
Cory Nickerson, the vice-chair of the management board, said he was discouraged that there wasn’t enough “forward thinking people” to go ahead with the proposals, which he did believe would benefit the industry. But he said the fishermen voted and the result of that majority vote had to be respected.
Had the licence holders voted in favour of the proposals, DFO would have been asked by the management board to have made them licence conditions as part of a two-year pilot project. Some of the ideas behind the proposals were that they would have reduced the lobster glut at the start of the season that results in low prices, it would have reduced expenses for fishermen, it would have opened up more room on the fishing grounds and it could have improved the quality of the lobsters landed.
But not all licence holders were convinced the measures were in their best interest.
The number of people who turned out for the Sept. 25 meeting was the largest turnout ever for a management board meeting. In comparison, the management board’s annual general meeting this past spring attracted only a few dozen people, whereas this meeting attracted around 700 fishermen.
However many felt they had no choice but to attend since prior to the meeting it was indicated that the votes of those who didn’t show up for the meeting would be counted with whatever the majority vote was. Many felt that was undemocratic, especially since not all licence holders received the letter about the ballot and vote that had been mailed out.
The management board says it studied the proposals in depth over recent months before presenting them to fishermen.
Instead of landing 20 million lobsters in the first week of the fishery, with these proposals the industry would only bring in around nine million, it was suggested by Robert Harris, a member of the LFA 34 Management’s Board’s pricing committee.
Nickerson told fishermen he thought they would still land the same amount of lobsters over the six-month season, saying the landings would have been more spread out over the season.
But many fishermen were skeptical of that claim.
Nickerson also told the fishermen that by slowing down the gut at the start of the season fishermen could better assure that the lobsters they’re catching are not heading straight to the processors at processing prices.
Many fishermen agreed.
But could the management board guarantee that, questioned others. There were fishermen who saw reducing their trap limit as a big risk that didn’t come with guarantees of whether it would pay off for them or not.
One fisherman at the meeting, Vince Goreham of Woods Harbour, was handing out forms calling for a non-confidence vote in the management board executive. He is seeking the resignation of the board saying over the years he has lost faith in the executive. He said over the years things that are discussed at the table by port reps have been changed by the executive. He said it has frustrated port reps over the years, and some have left the board because of it.
In August, a new executive for the LFA 34 Management Board was announced.
Meanwhile, during the meeting the management board was asking licence holders not to think about themselves individually, but to think of the industry as a whole, and what is best for its future. Is it to keep doing what is being done year after year? Because that doesn’t seem to be working.
“It seems like we’re at a point where we going to keep doing the same thing over and over,” said one fisherman.
But other fishermen noted that licence holders have built a business plan for the upcoming season around the status quo when it comes to traps.
What about the first week in January, said Digby fisherman Brock Longmire, when that difference of 75 lobster traps might be make or break for a fisherman? And why, he questioned, were licence holders voting on proposals without first knowing from buyers whether the measures would make any difference? And he was concerned that the trap reduction would displace crew members.
Fishermen were told during the meeting that there are three things that affect the price they are paid for their lobsters: the US disposable income, the exchange rate and the tonnage landed. Well, said one fisherman who spoke at the microphone, fishermen can’t change the US economy and they can’t change the dollar.
Hardly any of those who spoke publicly during the meeting threw their outright support behind the proposals. It was mostly those against the proposals who spoke at the microphones. At times during the meeting things got testy.
Yet just as you could see there was no support by many for the proposals – and based on the sentiment in the room during the meeting the result of the votes didn’t come as a big surprise – you could also still see and hear support from many others seated in the room as they challenged those who suggested these proposals weren’t worth pursuing.
“What are we going to do instead?” shouted one fisherman.
And that seemed to sum up the feeling after the vote was counted.