Kathy Johnson photo

With an increased demand in China and a shore price that fishermen can live with, January was a little bit brighter than the opening month of the season for the Southwestern Nova Scotia lobster fishery, but there’s still lots of uncertainty what spring will bring.

“I think things are coming along in January the way they normally come along in January,” said Tommy Amirault, president of the Clearwater Lobster Association.

“The catches have slowed down. The weather has been okay for January. Fishermen are getting out to check on their traps. The catch is down a little bit but not down horrible for January. The price has come up a little bit. That definitely helped. If it had stayed in the $8/pound range, I don’t think the bottom line would have worked very well. I don’t think the numbers would have been doable for most of the fleet. The expenses would have been too high to keep expensive traps, expensive rope and expensive boats out there.”

The shore price increased to $9.25/pound in January, up from the earlier $8/pound.

“I think people think a $9, $10/pound price is fair. That keeps things moving, the boats and the crew going a little bit,” said Amirault.

February and early March are typically a slow period for most of the fleet in the lobster fishing area (LFA) 33 and 34 fishery.

“By the end of January for most of the fleet, it’s over,” said Amirault. “What we’re doing now is maintaining the gear, making sure you don’t lose any, making sure things are where you left them, don’t lose any pots or anchors if you’re offshore. If you’re inside you’re probably thinking about landing them and watching where you put them. If you can make a week’s work that great. You don’t want to risk too much to make it.”

On the marketing side of things, there was a spike in demand for live lobster in China for the Lunar New Year celebrations.

“China is the key driver and someone switched on the purchase button about 10 days ago,” said Stewart Lamont, managing director of the Tangier Lobster Company Limited on Jan. 19.

“Today was the last key day to export to China prior to official Chinese New Year, Sunday, Jan. 22. Now granted, the pricing China was prepared to pay does not equal pricing being quoted to our less price-sensitive markets. Regardless, demand of any sort was a welcome change after a three or four-month period in which the demand was pathetic primarily due to the lock down of the period.”

Lamont said North American demand over the December period was lackluster at best. “Live lobster pricing to the market is down by approximately $3/pound compared to one year ago, but that does not help us significantly when consumers are struggling to afford housing, food and fuel costs throughout all of Canada, America and in other parts of the world. Furthermore, lobsters caught in Maine are $2 to $3/pound less expensive this time of year. Americans understandably prefer to buy America first and it helps that their product is dramatically cheaper. Price rules in such an inflationary environment and we cannot work around that very much.”

European sales in December were surprisingly good, said Lamont. “There is always demand for live lobster in Europe at Christmas and New Year’s and that market was able to pay our quoted pricing without too much debate. However, the party is now over in Europe. Demand in January has been desperately slow. The next opportunity for some robust action in Europe will be Valentine’s Day.”

Looking ahead to the spring season, Lamont said he thinks that “is very much a work-in-progress. Will the processing sector have anywhere near the normal appetite? We don’t know yet. I am guessing not. They have had a brutal last 12 months in lobster and snow crab. Will the opening up of China continue despite massive mortality numbers now being reported due to COVID? We don’t know and we may not know except on a weekly basis. If China has appetite, will we obtain the commercial air freight lift to Asian destinations that the industry used to enjoy? Will weekly sales to America rebound to anywhere near the normal levels from previously, or will affordability and inflationary concerns rule the day? We know all of the key questions right now, but we don’t know the answers.”

Air freight logistics have been a challenge for lobster exporters this season, said Lamont.

“They are tighter recently for space to Asia than anytime since long prior to the pandemic,” he said. “Air Cargo logistics from Halifax have been excellent in terms of daily operations. No snow storms, very few major de-icing requirements, the smoothest in 10 years or more in my opinion. However, charter flights and cargo flights to Asia are much reduced so exporters have been challenged to obtain air freight lift for some key markets… you cannot load live lobster on a flight that does not exist … so lack of wide body cargo-friendly flights remains a challenge.”

Fishing effort in the southwestern Nova Scotia lobster fishery will begin to ramp up by mid to late March.

“February is pretty much a write off,” said Amirault.  “It’s the middle of March, end of March before anything shows up at all. The water is colder now. It takes a little bit longer to get things moving in the spring. Overall, it might not have been a great season but it’s been a season that’s been trying. I think people will struggle through it and hope it goes a little bit better.”

The six-month lobster fishery in LFA 33 and 34 closes on May 31.