In the 1950s the television show “Omnibus” presented a documentary called “Maine Lobsterman,” a day in the life of a Deer Isle lobsterman named Eugene Eaton. It had a narrative written and spoken by E.B. White.

Between Eaton’s trap hauls White says, “The catching of lobsters is not always a profitable enterprise.”
In 2010 that may well be the understatement of the century-whether in Maine or in Atlantic Canada where lobster prices dipped to below $3 a pound last season, a 20-year low.

“That’s why the Lobster Council of Canada was formed,” says Geoff Irvine, executive director of the newly-formed council, based in Halifax, which serves all the Atlantic provinces from Quebec to New Brunswick. Its partner organizations include fishermen, buyers, processors, First Nations, as well as provincial and federal government representatives.

In February, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Minister Gail Shea announced a federal grant of $352,000 to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy for Atlantic Canada’s lobster industry. The federal grant was augmented by a combined total of $65,000 from the Atlantic provinces. The Lobster Council is overseeing the project. The report, however, won’t be completed until after the start of the spring lobster season.

The grant will pay for meetings with industry, a consulting team and council members, through March 2011. Beyond that, Irvine says “I would expect a combination of contribution from harvesters, dealers and government agencies,” to pay for the council.

“The important factor here is that all these stakeholders are working together instead of against each other,” Irvine says. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when harvesters and buyers and processors are sitting at the table with one another.”

 “Price is the big challenge,” he says. “It’s Economics 101, the big question everybody asks. It’s a perfect storm of catches increasing since ’06; the fact that the Canadian dollar is virtually at par with the U.S.; worldwide recession; the price of fuel which has doubled and even tripled; and the increasing price of bait.”

Irvine added, “There couldn’t be a worse time for catches to explode.”

An example of the explosion was reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on March 1 with the headline, “Lobster catch on PEI biggest since 1991.”

The CBC report added that landings on Prince Edward Island were approximately 39 percent above the 40-year average-22.3 million pounds.

Why the record catches?
Ed Frenette, executive director of the PEI Fishermen’s Association, says, “It seems to be part of a gradual increase in the resource up here for the past three years. As to impact on price, last year was horrid, but for a lot of reasons. What landings this year will be, who knows? There has been very little ice in the Gulf. If that will have an effect, we have to wait and see.”
In other words, ” Same old, same old,” he added.
Talking about conditions overall Frenette says: “As for the Canadian lobster fishery, it’s a mixed bag. Landings are up generally while, as you know, prices went through the floor last year. The recession and credit crunch really hurt. As for 2010, I have to be optimistic: very little frozen inventory in P.E.I., unlike 2009; Scotia Fundy harvesters saw the price increase by a dollar or so this fall and winter over 2008/09; I’m hearing end buyers are approaching processors directly rather than relying on brokers; and there seems to be a growing demand for frozen product, which is PEI’s mainstay. If we can prevent lobster from becoming a commodity item, begin to improve on quality at all levels and succeed at market expansion, I can see a steady climb in prices and viability for all sectors of the Canadian lobster industry over time.”
Frenette says he is optimistic about the Lobster Council, “however, it will have to show some success within a year or two in order to prove itself to the industry, both harvesters and buyers/processors.”
In St. John’s, Newfoundland, Fish, Food and Allied Workers President Earle McCurdy said of the council, “We are participating in the Lobster Council, with two members of the board of directors, one harvester and one from our staff. It’s too early to say how it will work out, but last year was a disaster for lobster harvesters and we have to try a different approach.”
Irvine says that efforts like the rationalization program in Lobster Fishing Area [LFA] 25 (eastern coast of New Brunswick) are a step in the right direction. “The government bought out 89 of the roughly 400 licenses there,” he says. “The average age of those who were bought out was 55. The idea was to leave those who are left with a chance to make a living.”
As for the future Irvine says, “We have to hope that the recession is waning and that restaurants around the world will start buying again-at better pricing.”
Meanwhile, Irvine is constantly on the road, with the goal of attending “every meeting I can” at the LFAs in the region “to get a good look at where we are.”
Bob Gustafson is a freelance writer who lives in Eastport.