HALIFAX — Canada’s largest and most lucrative lobster fishery is slated to get started Saturday off Nova Scotia’s southwest coast, where about 5,200 fishermen are geared up for what is expected to be another profitable season — thanks in part to Donald Trump.
"The market keeps increasing, especially in China," said Bernie Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association, based in Yarmouth, N.S. "From a fisherman’s perspective, we’re expecting a good shore price ... It looks like a very positive outlook."
Berry, a fisherman for 39 years, has plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
Demand from Canada’s largest export market, the United States, remains strong, thanks to a healthy U.S. economy and a weak Canadian dollar.
As well, the industry is benefiting from the American president’s ongoing trade war with China, which prompted the Chinese government in July to impose a 25 per cent import tariff on many U.S. goods — including lobster.
"It makes it very hard for the Americans ... to get their product into China," said Berry, whose group represents fishermen aboard 970 boats in Lobster Fishing Area 34, which extends off the western edge of Nova Scotia.
His group decided Thursday to start setting their traps Saturday after rough weather delayed the start of the season, which was supposed to open on Monday. Another 700 boats from LFA 33, which extends from the Halifax region to the province’s southwestern tip, are also ready to drop their traps on Saturday.
In economic terms, it’s difficult to overstate the value of the industry, which tops every other Canadian seafood business in terms of landed value. It employs about 30,000 harvesters in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, where there are about 40 lobster fishing areas.
However, the two zones off southwestern Nova Scotia are by far the biggest producers.
Together, they accounted for 35 per cent of the $1.4−billion worth of Canadian lobster harvested last year.
They hauled in 31,800 tonnes in 2017−18, generating a landed value of $502 million — the second−largest landed value on record. In 2015, they caught 39,000 tonnes valued at a record $567 million.
In 2016, auto dealerships in southwestern Nova Scotia reported strong sales, with at least one dealer saying it wasn’t unusual to see lobster fishermen paying $65,000 in cash for a new pickup.
As well, local boat builders have reported a growing backlog on orders for vessels worth upwards of $500,000.
Even though landings in southwest Nova Scotia have doubled since the late 1990s, demand for the tasty crustaceans has kept pace and the lobster population appears to be in good shape — thanks in part to a lack of predators, like cod.
Last year, Canada exported 21−million kilograms of live lobster to the United States, and about 10−million kilograms to China.
Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said the Chinese tariff on U.S. lobster has provided a big boost for the Canadian industry.
"The Chinese, basically, stopped buying U.S. lobster," said Irvine, whose advocacy group represents harvesters, live shippers, processors and First Nations. "They needed lobster, and they started buying (more) from Canada. That has caused quite a dramatic jump."
Published reports have suggested some American lobster buyers are shipping their lobster into Canada, where they are being labelled as a Canadian product to avoid the Chinese tariff.
Meanwhile, Canada’s year−old free trade deal with the European Union, which reduced an eight per cent tariff on live lobster to zero, has led to a 55 per cent increase in exports to Europe, according to federal figures.
"In Europe, we have a very strong advantage over the Americans," said Berry, noting that the tariff remains in place for U.S. lobster.
Amid all of this good news, fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia are expecting a good price at the dock for their catches.
When two other lobster fishing areas opened in the Bay of Fundy earlier this fall, fishermen were getting at least $7 per pound, Berry said.
"That bodes well for us," he said, adding that prices at this time last year were hovering around $5.50 — a price that allows fishing boat captains to turn a profit.
Earlier this month, Nova Scotians were reminded of the growing importance of live lobster exports to China when a Boeing 747 cargo jet operated by SkyLease Cargo overshot a runway at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. No one was seriously injured, but a 120−tonne shipment of live lobster had to find another flight to Asia.
In August, airport officials announced SkyLease would be operating two flights a week for First Catch, a Chinese−owned seafood freight forwarding company.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press