Lobster traps are hoisted up from a fishing vessel to a waiting truck at the West Head wharf on Cape Sable Island as the LFA 33, 34 fishery wraps up for the season. Kathy Johnson photo

The six-month commercial lobster season in LFA 33 and 34 closed on May 31.

“The LFA 34 lobster season has been really tough for a lot of fishermen. It was the perfect storm of hardship with the price of fuel and bait at an all-time high and a shore price that was not reflective of the catch rates,” says Heather Mulock, Executive Director of the Coldwater Lobster Association.

“Economics 101 simplifies the concept of supply and demand — when the supply is low, the demand/price is high, but we simply did not see that this year. Depending on who you ask, there are several speculations as to why this occurred including volatile, unstable international markets, effects from the war in Ukraine, inflation and consumer trends changing during hard economic times to buyers having their own challenges. Quite possibly, a combination of all these and more has dampened the monetary return on catches. Whatever the cause, fishermen are feeling the strain.”

Mulock said many captains have stated that this past season was the worst season for them catch-wise in several decades.

“The most troubling part, the new entrants — the fish harvesters that bought-in within the past five years who are already financially strained to the max. Many new entrants are struggling to make their loan payments given the low catch rates in our district this season. There are no guarantees in the fishery and while we’ve been blessed with several good years, as a new entrant, the realities of one bad season have set in for many.”

While catch rates rise and fall in the fishery, as an industry, more science needs to be conducted to better understand the changes in our waters and the effects this has on our prized product, lobster, says Mulock.

“In addition, more transparency is needed from the supply chain on how pricing is determined from pot to plate. As traps are landed in the coming days closing out the 2022/2023 LFA 34 season, we look ahead to next season with hopes that this year was just Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that it’s called fishing for a reason and catch rates will return and provide profitable livelihoods for thousands on and off the water.”

As for whether there’s a concern for the stock, Mulock said “it’s too early to run off of hypotheses; widespread surveys need to be conducted throughout the district to make any plausible predictions. Lobster settlement studies and drift models for lobster larvae throughout LFA 34 would be incredibly valuable considering so much has changed in our waters, including increased water temperatures and the subsequent changes to salinity and pH levels. One common theme this season has been the noticeable amount of berried females in some areas of the fishing district, however, conversations around the wharves have been centred around the absence of tinkers (undersized lobster).”

On the lobster marketing front, Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada, said as usual, it is important to separate the processed lobster market from the live lobster market as they typically behave very differently and that is no different at the end of May 2023.

In 2022, Canada set a record for live lobster exports with $1.242 billion dollars total value and 59,611 metric tonnes shipped to over 60 countries worldwide, says Irvine.

“The live market has been the overall market driver this spring with demand and predicted demand (inventory managers) keeping shore prices firm after the usual drop after most LFAs opened in early May. There are reports that live buyers have been procuring product to put away in higher volumes in eastern Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The cold water and poor weather this spring has kept landings volume down which has also contributed to the steady shore prices as we move toward June 1.”

In 2022, Canadian live lobster exports to the U.S. totalled 22,760 metric tonnes valued at $545,046,000; exports to China totalled 23,161 metric tonnes valued at $452,023,000 and to South Korea, 2,798 metric tonnes valued at $51,427,000.

To the end of March 2023, live lobster exports to China totalled 9,334 metric tonnes valued at $163,216,000; exports to the U.S. totalled 5,136 metric tonnes valued at $133,046,000 and to South Korea, 658 metric tonnes valued at $11,701,000.

As for the processed lobster market — the principal products include in-shell raw tails, various types of cooked meat, whole cooked, raw and blanched as well as hundreds of value-added products and accounts for 55 per cent of export value for Canadian lobster, says Irvine.

“The processed lobster market adjusted down approximately 30–35 per cent last summer and fall with tails rebounding during the winter of 2023. Markets in Europe, Asia and North America were cautious going into this spring and it is too early to know how this key production and selling period will end up.  All markets are nervous about food inflation, the risk of a recession and overall economic malaise. Noted seafood analyst John Sackton believes that we are in a period of seafood demand adjustment as retailers in the United States keep retail prices high and accept the lower volume that results while maintaining their margins.  It is clear that all organizations and governments that undertake lobster marketing efforts must continue to focus on Europe, Asia and other emerging markets.”

Irvine said the LCC continues to promote Canadian lobster with its own marketing program, funded by the lobster sector and the Atlantic Fisheries Fund. It is focused on North America and Europe and in partnership with provincial and federal governments with projects focused on digital marketing channels in China (focused on the “Seafood from Canada” branding program) and other key Asian markets with a recent Export Café mission to Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand and another in the planning process for February 2024.

The Fisheries Council of Canada has developed a “Choose Canadian Seafood” marketing campaign to encourage seafood consumption in the domestic market.