By Tina Comeau
Had there been about 500 crewmembers in attendance, a vote would have been taken Wednesday evening on whether crewmembers should refuse to load pots on boats this weekend in advance of Monday’s scheduled opening of the lobster season.
But there weren’t the desired numbers at the Nov. 21 meeting held to hold such a vote – even though many of those in attendance felt withholding their services is the way to go.
And so crewmembers will try again.
Another meeting will be held at the Lobster Rock Wharf in Yarmouth on Friday, Nov. 23, at 3 p.m. to discuss what LFA 34 crewmembers should, or shouldn’t, do.
They’re hoping for larger numbers, and they’re hoping for unity.
Ultimately, they’re hoping for higher lobster prices this season.
(Note: The Vanguard was contacted by the meeting organizer on Thursday to say that they had been asked whether captains who are supportive to the crewmembers are able to attend the Friday meeting at Lobster Rock Wharf and whether crewmembers from District 33 can also attend. The answers to both questions is yes and the meeting organizer asked to have this information shared with the public.)
Around 150 crewmembers turned out for a meeting that was held in the gymnasium of Drumlin Heights Consolidated School. But with around 980 lobster licences in lobster fishing area 34 – that stretches from parts of Shelburne and Digby counties, with Yarmouth County in between – potentially there could have been in upwards of 1,900 crewmembers
The meeting organizer, Troy Nickerson of Lower West Pubnico, had hoped for between 500 and 1,000 people.
Others in the room who spoke to the microphone said it was shameful that more people didn’t turn out.
But what’s really shameful, it was stated, are the wages that crewmembers have been drawing during years of slumping lobster prices that have often hovered at $3.50 a pound paid to fishermen.
While licence holders and buyers hold their respective meetings, those in the back of the boat don’t usually get a vote or a say in what happens, even though they collectively represent a large part of the industry. Which is why the meeting was called, even though it is nearly the 11th hour in terms of the season getting underway.
Some in the room said they thought that the licence holders would do something or agree to something. But with fishermen preparing to go fishing on Nov. 26, those at the meeting said maybe it’s the crew that need to step forward to do something.
What that something is, however, wasn’t decided at this meeting.
Nickerson opened the meeting by saying the low turnout was disappointing.
“Clearly tonight, just as the licence holders are not quite sure what to do, it’s pretty prevalent that a lot of crewmembers are in the same boat,” he said. “But you’re here tonight because you do care, and it’s not that some didn’t. I think they’re in a position where they’re very fearful for their jobs.”
Nickerson told the crowd that he has been blessed in his lifetime to have benefitted from various fisheries, including the lobster industry.But things and times have changed in recent years and it is driving people out of the industry, driving them away from their communities, or driving them to feelings of worry and desperation.
“I’m very blessed in that I have lived through the glory of this industry, I’ve seen it,” he said. “Unfortunately, chances are those times aren’t coming back, not to that degree.”
So, he said, crewmembers need to think about where they stand.
While yes, it’s true, crewmembers don’t have the same expenses as licence holders – they’re not making boat payments, or purchasing rope, or fuel, or bait. They are not immune to the stresses caused by low lobster prices.
And while Nickerson said he’s been fortunate on the boat he has fished on – “To my knowledge I haven't been shortchanged,” he said – it isn’t that way for everyone. The way crewmembers are paid varies and he likened some of what he’s heard to horror stories.
“If we can’t affect the price, the bottom line is we as crewmembers can’t afford to keep taking a cut in pay,” he said.
“If nobody wants to stick together to get the price up, than us as crew are going to have no choice but we’re going to have to go to our captains and we’re going to have to say, you know what, my services are worth more than 12.5 per cent, because I have a business that I run and that business is called my home.”
Some of the crewmembers came to the microphone to share their views. One spoke about how he had to spend part of his year driving a truck out west just to make ends meet.
Another crewmember said the captains have gotten themselves into a mess in that they are drowning in debt because of years of lower prices and now they have to fish to get themselves out of their situation, no matter what price is offered. But if crewmembers can’t make a living, then they need to take a stand, he said.
“Shame, shame, shame,” he said, that more crewmembers didn’t turn out for the meeting.
The purpose of the meeting, said Nickerson, was not to bash captains or buyers. Still, many in the room felt a higher price can be paid for lobsters.
Nickerson noted how in past seasons they’ve been told things that have depressed prices have been the quality of the catch and a lobster glut. But he said catches are down in places like Grand Manan and the quality is reported to be fine. So in the absence of these two things, it was questioned, why are prices still so low? Those in the room feel the buyers could be paying more.
In the room during the meeting were faces that were young and old, but etched on most of them was concern and frustration.
And while some in the room said captains told their crew not to come to this meeting, others said their captains told them they needed to be here.
“One thing my captain told me today is you’d be stupid to miss this meeting tonight. He said you guys need a voice, and he’s right, we need a voice,” Tim Schrader said, adding he too was disappointed with the turnout. Schrader said he’s maybe had things better than others in that he has been able to do other work aside from lobster fishing to help pay the bills.
“But we’ve got to get together and decide what we’re going to do with the future because right now this is going nowhere,” he said. “We’ve got to have a better price, there are families that are suffering.”
At six months, the lobster season is short. And crewmembers aren't getting paid by their captains in the fall when they’re spending weeks working in the shed getting traps ready for the season.
“I could go and work and make money but we’ve got to get ready for lobstering,” Schrader said. While some captains may be willing to say let’s go fishing for whatever the price is and we’ll just make our money in the fall, Schrader said the problem is money isn’t being made anymore. Or, it was noted at the meeting, the money made this year is payign for debt from last year.
“So unless we get together and get some bigger numbers in meetings like this, we’re not going to go nowhere,” said Schrader. “It’s like everybody said, shame, shame on those that didn’t show up tonight.”
Which is why those at the meeting said they will spread the word about Friday’s planned gathering.
Meanwhile, as the room started to disperse at the end of the meeting, another crewmember took the microphone, his voice quivering. He talked about how he’s received a letter telling him he is at jeopardy of losing his home, and how the bills keep piling up.
For many crewmembers, unless they choose to head west looking for work, there isn’t an overabundance of other job prospects for them here at home. And so they rely on the lobster industry, but they’re feeling let down by the industry.
“I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to worry about money, and I’m just tired of it,” said the last crewmember to speak at the mircophone.
It was stated at the meeting that even just one dollar more per pound could help to alleviate a lot of the stress and hardship that exists.