A dusting of snow covers the Lower East Pubnico wharf in February. Kathy Johnson photo

With two months to go before the six-month commercial lobster season closes in lobster fishing areas (LFA) 33 and 34, the fishing fleet will be back on the water in full force come April in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Going into March, the fishery had slowed to a crawl with severe winter storms keeping the fleet ashore and even prompting some fishermen to land their gear.

“February has been a challenge, the weather,” said Tommy Amirault, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association. “I think a lot of people are encouraged by the price, but the weather has been an issue. It’s slowed the fishery down and that’s probably a factor in the price.”

The shore price for fresh-caught lobster was anywhere from $15.50 to $16.50/pound for LFA 33 and 34 fishermen at the end of February.

“There’s no lobster being caught,” said Lockeport buyer Mike Cotter. “The weather has been bad. They’re lucky to get a pound to a pot.”

Some fishermen do land their gear during the winter months.

“Some will, some won’t. It’s a mix, depending on where you fish,” said Amirault. 

“It has been a trickier winter for anyone who fishes inside with these storms going by because they’re pretty rugged storms. A lot of people don’t dare leave their traps on the shoal water because traps cost around $220 to $240 now so if you lose them, you’re talking a lot of money. It’s not an easy replacement or a cheap replacement. Offshore gear set in deeper waters is probably safe, but the water has cooled off, the catches have gone down and with the cost of bait and fuel, by the time you add everything up, even with the price increase, it looks better and it probably is a little bit better but it’s not as good as it looks,” said Amirault.

“Everybody in Canada is suffering through that, inflation, fuel prices, the price of everything has gone up. Bait, I don’t know if there’s anything you can put on a trap that isn’t a dollar a pound,” added Amirault.

With the lobster fishery opening up in other LFAs in April, the shore price is expected to go down, as it usually does.

“Normally, matters in our lobster activity are related to the amount of supply and demand as well as product quality,” said Leo Muise, executive director of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance.

“With COVID-19, however, additional complications have been added to the formula. So far this year we have had record high prices, difficult weather causing harvesters to miss numerous harvest days, labour shortages in a number of communities and huge challenges for air freight logistics to Europe and Asia. Moving forward we can expect the unexpected and of course the continuation of COVID-19,” said Muise.

Come spring, with up to 6,000 additional fishing vessels on the water once the other LFAs open and weather improves, the laws of supply and demand will kick in and will likely create downward price pressures, said Muise.

“However, we fully understand that the current price levels are not sustainable. That much is undeniably obvious. There will be downward price trends in May and perhaps early June until the price stabilizes at a level again in which the market feels comfortable. The volume of the spring catch in a variety of jurisdictions will play a key role, as will the quality. As of now, the details and the precise timing are a mystery. No one would pretend to know how this plays out in the final analysis,” said Muise.

“So again, the safest thing we can possibly say is that we have learned to expect the unexpected. If we gradually emerge from COVID-19 and if flights are more typical and normal, we anticipate some measure of worldwide relief and a bit of a celebration mode perhaps. Lobster is a very high-quality celebration food, so we hope that it is a fit that works for everyone in the industry, including our worldwide customers,” said Muise.

In 2021, Canada had a record year for total lobster exports, up by about $700 million from 2019 to $3.257 billion CAD, said Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada.

“Live lobster export value is flat vs. 2019 (2020 was an anomaly due to the pandemic) but whole in-shell and lobster meat exploded in value,” said Irvine.

In 2019, the export value of live lobster totalled $1.165 billion. In 2021, live lobster exports came in at $1.234 billion. In 2020, live lobster exports were valued at $985 million.

The export value of frozen in-shell lobsters went from $1.067 billion in 2019, to $1.352 billion in 2021. In 2020, the value was $794 million.

The export value of frozen lobster meat almost doubled in value from 2019 to 2021, going from $358 million to $668 million. In 2020, the value was $313 million. The demand was driven by the U.S., said Irvine.

Live lobster imports from the U.S. were also up in 2021 ($531 million) compared to 2019 ($406 million). “Our processing plants buy roughly half of Maine’s lobster to process in the summer and early fall when we have very little fishing,” said Irvine.

In 2020, the value of live lobster imports from the U.S. was down to $277 million.

So far in 2022, Chinese New Year sales went well, said Irvine  but air cargo logistics continue to be a challenge for China and Europe.