By Tina Comeau
Hundreds of lobster fishermen gathered on a wharf in Yarmouth on Sunday to talk about keeping their boats tied up to their respective wharfs until they can get lobster buyers to commit to a minimum price for their spring catches.
The commercial lobster fishery off southwestern Nova Scotia is due to close on May 31 but many fishermen say they can’t continue to fish for the same low prices this spring that they fished for when the season opened in the fall. And fishermen are prepared to stay ashore until they can achieve a price they say is fair and needed.
Fishermen want buyers commit to a minimum of $5.50, from now up until the conclusion of the season.
The April 29 meeting on Yarmouth’s waterfront was organized by the 1688 Professional Lobster Fishermen’s Association, which held a meeting last week in Barrington where a strike was discussed. Many boats – although not all – stayed tied up on the weekend and those who gathered in Yarmouth were urged to stay the course until they have a committed price.
If that can be achieved in the next day or so, then fishermen were told they should go fishing. If a price is not committed to, then fishermen are being urged to keep their boats tied up and many say they will.
It was noted a major market for lobster, Mother’s Day, is approaching.
Just how organized the strike effort is, however, is hard to completely judge. For instance, not everyone is a member of the 1688 association – although the association is closing in on 900 members, and you don’t need to be a member of the association to support a strike effort. (The association is still urging people to join 1688.) And while there was a large turnout on the wharf on Sunday, still, not everyone was there to say, or to show, where they stand on the issue. The evidence of this will be seen at wharfs when it comes to how many boats are tied up.
Only a very small number of boats were reported to have gone fishing on Sunday, the day the fishermen gathered, from some ports. For instance, in one port only one boat had gone fishing. In another, there was talk of one or two having gone fishing. In other harbours all fishermen were reported to have stayed home. But at other harbours there were reports that fishermen were still fishing.
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Still, with just four weeks left to go in the season, and bills and crew to pay, there is concern among fishermen when it comes to tying up. Even those who support a strike say that concern is understandable.
However, a united front is needed, fishermen were told. They were urged after Sunday’s gathering to call their lobster buyers and seek a committed price. Many on the wharf said if they don’t get a committed price they won’t go fishing.
James Mood, 1688 association president, told the fishermen that the government, lobster buyers and other lobster fishing areas are watching this region and watching what fishermen are doing. But in the end, he said, fishermen here can’t be concerned with what other fishing districts are or are not doing. They have to be concerned with what is happening here.
“You’ve got to show these LFA areas that you mean business,” he said, adding ultimately the decision is up to fishermen.
“People are saying to me, what about $5? Yes, I want you to go fishing, if that’s what you want to do. It isn’t up to me, it’s up to you guys . . . But we’ll just say the (buyers) say $5, do they mean it? You’ve got to get a commitment because if you don’t you might end up with less than $4.”
Last fall fishermen went fishing for less than $4 when the season opened – the price was around $3.25 or $3.50 – which is what they had been paid for their fall catches the past couple of seasons before that. In January the 1688 association was formed and one area of action that fishermen took was to withhold catches until a price of $5.50 was achieved.
It is unusual for fishermen to tie up their boats at this point in the season. Strike talk is usually confined to the fall.
“I know you’ve got bills to pay, but if you continue down this road you’re going to drive yourself into bankruptcy,” said Mood. “We’ve got people hanging on, I know, I talk to them...We need to stand our ground.”
But in standing their ground, Mood added that the association does not condone any violence or property damage.
Some fishermen came to the microphone saying they support a strike.
“We all know eventually you’re going to have to go,” said Jonathan Adams, a fishermen from East Pubnico. “If we can make a stand here today, or tomorrow of whenever, just keep this thing going until the fall when we can really make a difference, we need the momentum, we’ve got the momentum now.”
Still, other fishermen questioned what will take place the next day, and the day after that.
“Tie ‘em up,” yelled fishermen in the crowd about their lobster boats. This drew applause and the honking of car and truck horns.
Fisherman Troy Nickerson told the crowd that fishermen have to be prepared to make sacrifices for their own good and for the betterment of the industry.
“When people go on strike, strikes that work, they often end up having to go on strike for a period of time. Everybody would go on strike in this country if it only took one day,” he said, adding he would rather lose $1,000 this week than $5,000 or $6,000 next fall if the price is still low.
He also suggested that unlike the fall – when inside fishermen rely heavily on the first couple of weeks of the season for their catches before the water temperature changes and lobsters move further from shore – at this time of the year the playing field is pretty level for everyone, with everyone benefiting from about the same level of catches.
“Right now the catches are fairly even . . . so when we talk about daily loss we all lose together.” Said Nickerson. “Understand this, if we’ve created the problem, to get out of it we’re going to have to sacrifice at some point. If you think you’re going to get you $5 or $5.50 . . . and not have to sacrifice and take a hit, you’re misguided.”
Still, a fisherman who fishes inside (closer to shore) in the spring and the fall suggested the playing field isn’t really so level since these fishermen also count on the spring catches for a majority of their season income. In the fall these same fishermen had a short window for catches and they fished for a low price. So bills that couldn’t be paid in the fall, have to be paid in the spring with money earned now.
Even so, he said he still supported the effort.