Lower than expected landings and a strong market demand, driven by industry itself, added up to record-setting shore prices for lobster fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia for the opening month of the six-month season.
The Lobster Fishing Areas (LFA) 33 and 34 season opened on Dec. 1 after a five-day weather delay. It is estimated that the landings were down approximately 30 per cent for December, compared to the same time period last year. Water temperatures were reported to be 10 degrees colder at the start of the season.
“The water is a little bit colder this year,” said Bernie Berry president of the Coldwater Lobster Association.
“A lot of fishermen are chalking up the slow catch rate to the colder than normal water temperatures. Hopefully this is an anomaly and hopefully when the warm water comes back in the late spring, we’ll have some good catches and forget about this little downturn in the fall.”
Weather-wise, fishermen had “really good fishing weather” the first three weeks, said Berry. “There haven’t been any really big blows, a little bit of sloppy weather but that’s to be expected this time of year. A lot of guys got a lot of fishing time in, two weeks plus consecutively actually.”
As for the price, “the best opening price we’ve ever had,” said Berry. “It opened around $7, $7.50 so that was a big plus.” Within the first week the price has jumped to $8 and by the second week to a $9/pound shore price, which was still holding at the end of the year, give or take 25 cents.
The demand that drove the price up early in the season came from lobster buyers and dealers.
“There was undue appetite and undue panic by dealers to acquire more product and they were prepared to pay premium prices for it,” said Stewart Lamont, managing director of Tangier Lobster.
The result was lost markets over the holiday season.
“We didn’t feed the market collectively as an industry this December so it’s not shocking that it should considerably diminish in the end,” said Lamont. “We missed the American market. America didn’t buy the normal lobster over the holiday period. We missed the processing sector. They didn’t process anywhere near close to their normal volumes. We missed the Christmas and New Year’s retail promotions,” such as Sobeys and Super Store. “Those kinds of large retailers were not given the support on pricing to come anywhere close to an acceptable December promotion. We have lots of things to think about that we didn’t do very well at all.”
Lamont said Tangier Lobster did about 80 per cent of its normal trade in December. “We just did so under duress,” he said.
“The product was much less available than normal, the product was much more expensive than normal and up until the last week, fishers and dealers wanted to hold on to thinking they had something that was going to be worth more money. The nature of the commodity market is you must feed it. The commodity market requires a regular supply and the regular supply can’t all be at the absolute breaking point highest price.”
Going into the new year, Lamont said there will be market demand “but it won’t be at the price points that we have been selling at over the past three weeks. There’s an adjustment coming, Mother Nature will have some impact on that, how much the boats catch over the next short while. They tell me the outlook is good. It will be very interesting to see what companies do in this environment.”
On a positive note, Lamont said the quality of the catch was somewhat better in December than in previous years. “Even though the prices were higher, customers did receive a top-notch quality lobster which is reassuring.”
According to preliminary DFO statistics for the 2017/18 season, LFA 33 and 34 fishermen landed 31,863 tonnes of lobster with a landed value of approximately $502 million; 60 per cent of the total inshore lobster landings in the Maritimes Region. It is expected to be confirmed as the second largest landed value on record.