The fishermen of Pubnico, Argyle, Shag Harbour and the other hamlets of Nova Scotia’s rocky southwest coast are mending their lobster traps and checking lines, but some predict the local fleet will stay at the wharf when the fishery is scheduled to open at the end of November. For the third year in a row, a high Canadian dollar and recession-minded Americans are conspiring to threaten one of the world’s most venerable lobster industries.
One hundred and fifty fishermen filed into a Yarmouth church the other day to plot strategy. They all knew the unfortunate mathematics: fishermen landed 10 per cent more lobster last year than two years ago, but earned 25 per cent less for their haul. Prices for the last two years have dropped below 20-year lows and for the very first time, the kings of rural Nova Scotia are going bust.
One of them, Ashton Spinney, bought his first license in 1957 for 25 cents. In all those years, Spinney never saw able-bodied lobstermen walk away from their boats. This year, nine of his neighbors sold out. Three of Richard Donaldson’s neighbours have given up, and the lifelong lobsterman is thinking about following their lead. Young men used to fight for the chance to crew on his boat, but now Donaldson can’t find a local lad to go to sea.
The stretch of water that curves around the western tip of Nova Scotia from Digby to Goose Point is renowned as the richest lobster waters in the world. Three years ago, the catch of Lobster Fishing Area 34 was worth $222m. That’s almost the value of all of the lobster caught in Maine that year, and a third of Canada’s total catch. In LFA 34, high-school dropouts made six-figure incomes, traded in their trucks every two years and counted on six months of vacation.
“There is no public sympathy for lobster fishermen,” says Jimmy Conrad, who bought his first boat at the age of 19. “[Our lifestyle] looks pretty good to Joe Blow who is working 50 weeks a year for $40,000. But we aren’t the only ones who are hurting; lobster drives the whole economy, so everyone is hurting.’
To ensure that the business survives, Conrad is promoting a deal he hopes will bring the wharf a little predictability and keep lobstering skills alive for the next generation. His slogan is “Five to survive”: he wants buyers to promise $5 a pound – exactly what they paid when he started fishing 18 years ago. “Even stupid people are smart enough to realise it isn’t going to be like in the days of old,” he says. “But there’s a minimum, or it’s not going to work.”