By Tina Comeau
With the ferry service running between Digby and Saint John, N.B. sidelined by mechanical issues and weather during on some recent days, there is deepening concern over the detrimental impact this is having on the lobster industry, which is causing one group to once again call for the replacement of the aging vessel.
The Bay of Fundy Marine Transportation Association says cancellations of the service due to mechanical issues or weather conditions at this time of the year could be disastrous to the lobster industry in southwestern Nova Scotia, which is shipping lobsters to markets for the Christmas and New Year’s sales.
“This couldn’t come at a more crucial and inconvenient time, particularly for our local lobster industry,” said association chair Jim Thurber in a Dec. 19 media release. He said the impact could possibly be measured in millions of dollars and it could spell long-term financial hardship for many small companies. “What we have here today is a perfect economic storm comprised of mechanical unreliability, adverse weather and peak market demand.”
Marc Surette is the executive director of the Nova Scotia Fish Packers Association. He is also a director on the marine transportation association. He says a very large percentage of the lobster industry in southwestern Nova Scotia relies on the Princess of Acadia service to get its product to markets in the United States and to airports south of the border where it is shipped to overseas markets. But he says more and more in recent years the service is becoming unreliable, in industry's opinion.
“There are people that are missing air connections because of this, and going by roads adds that extra seven or eight hours and a lot of costs," he said. "We’re in the peak shipping season and when we don’t have a ferry we can rely on to get our product to airports in Boston and New York we’re in trouble.”
Surette said the industry is finding that unlike 10 years ago when the vessel would sail in many conditions, over the past three or four years it is being cancelled on days when you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be.
“I think both the federal and provincial governments, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are supportive of the ferry with the partnership arrangement that they’re in,” said Surette, who says there has to be discussions about the future of the service and a future vessel. “I think it’s time for all three governments to take a serious look at this and come up with a long-term solution because what we have now is not a service, it’s cross your fingers and hope, and that’s not the way the lobster industry can run.”
And, Surette noted, it’s not just the lobster industry that’s impacted when the service is cancelled. The groundfish industry is also impacted.
“Some of the smaller processors that don’t own quota are relying on fish that comes out of Boston and they’re having trouble getting that fish up here because trucks are just so far behind schedule that nothing is coordinating well,” he said. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”
Thurber said for the past number of years the Bay of Fundy Marine Transportation Association has been stressing that the current vessel has reached the end of its reliable service capacity and that the fishing industry sees the solution to this as replacing the aging ferry with a newer vessel. It’s especially important given what the ferry means to the economy of southwestern Nova Scotia, said Thurber.
“After the Christmas and New Year’s period they’re not going to be able to move nearly as much product because this is the most lucrative time of the year for the industry,” said Thurber. “And given the stresses already in place because of low prices and high catches this is causing incredible anxiety within the fishing community.”
Decades ago there was year-round ferry service between Yarmouth and Bar Harbor. Eventually, though, ferry service became seasonal. A ferry service in Yarmouth, should one return, is only expected to be a seasonal service, which is why, Surette said, focus must be given to replacing the ferry in Digby.
“For the fisheries we need the Digby service,” he said.
As for whether cancelled sailings could impact the price paid for lobster, Surette said it could be a concern if inventories can’t be moved.
“This time of the year we want to ship as many lobsters as possible and this is certainly jeopardizing that. People are rethinking how they’re going to get through this. The costs associated with driving around are astronomical for the trucking companies and the shippers,” he said, and then there is the concern over how much of the inventory can be moved out if people are missing connections to air freight.
“If we have guys that can’t make commitments or can’t make those sales in the Christmas season, all of a sudden we’ve got lobsters floating around that are not supposed to be here come January,” Surette said. “So it’s just one more blow to what has been a very disappointing lobster season so far for everyone.”
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