Faron O’Keefe should be on the water setting lobster traps, but he awaits acupuncture treatment instead. It’s the end of April and O’Keefe is standing up in the waiting room because it’s become too painful for him to sit. The 58-year-old lobster fisher from Port au Choix says the precarious state of the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery has taken a toll on his mental and physical health. He doesn’t know how much more he can take. 

“You’re dwelling on the fishery all the time,” he says. “When my eyes open in the morning, it’s the first thing I think about.” 

In fewer than 48 hours, O’Keefe says his plans to get at the spring lobster fishery went arse over teakettle. At the opening of the season, in April, the minimum price for the hot ticket seafood was set at $14.37 per pound. But after traps were mended and boats were fueled and ready for launch, most fish processors in the province refused to buy at that price point.  The harvesters say it’s a prime example of how the pricing system is broken. 

It’s not just lobster. At the end of April, two of the province’s other most lucrative fisheries—snow crab and shrimp—stood at a standstill. Instead of the usual buzz of springtime activities on wharves across the province, this year’s commercial fisheries have been riddled with tie-ups, delays and price wars.

Faron O’Keefe awaits fishery news outside the GNP Community Place in Port au Choix. Photo: Leila Beaudoin.

How fish are priced

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel—which operates under the province’s Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act—serves as an arbitrator for parties during a planned schedule of hearings, and sets minimum fish prices when negotiating parties reach a stalemate. The parties include the Fish Food & Allied Workers (FFAW) union, which represents fishers—the sellers—and the Association of Seafood Processors (ASP), which represents processors—the buyers. 

Different variables are considered in pricing decisions for various species. While cod pricing in recent years has relied on a grading system based on quality, lobster and snow crab prices are influenced by a market formula and schedule, with weekly prices based on the Urner Barry Index, which provides information on the price of live lobster and snow crab in the U.S. retail market twice a week. That system has been used to determine the weekly price for live lobster landed in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2011. 

This year, the price-setting panel’s decision sided with the FFAW’s price point, a higher figure than what ASP had offered in negotiations.  But when the season opened, instead of purchasing at the panel’s set price most processors decided not to buy. Following weeks of extensive negotiations to recalculate the weekly lobster pricing formula, processors started buying lobster again in early May.

Fishers blame processors, processors blame market

Processors have repeatedly blamed pricing woes and buying stoppages on volatile global seafood markets, arguing they cannot continue normal production in an uncertain environment. Some also have freezers filled with frozen product from the seafood market slowdown during the pandemic.

From the perspective of many fishers and their unions, processors are gaming the system by not buying when the panel’s prices don’t suit them. Harvesters also say they’re working in a buyer’s market with insufficient competition.

Traps like these line community wharves, which have been busy with activity despite fishery delays. Photo: Leila Beaudoin.

In late April, Port Saunders fisher Murray Lavers was mending and packing lobster traps. Then came delays. The whole situation is “stressful,” he says. “I haven’t slept for a month.”

Those looking for job stability won’t find it in the fishery, he says, explaining there’s a bigger problem—one that threatens to freeze out what’s left of the commercial inshore fishery. “I’ve been involved in shrimp negotiations for over 20 years [and] there’s no bargaining in good faith anymore,” he says, adding processors’ offers often don’t come close to what harvesters need.

“It’s like my shed over there,” he says. “To build that shed today would probably cost you $250,000—and someone come and tell me they’re going to give me $75,000. And I gotta take it—they’re going to take my shed anyway. It just doesn’t make sense.”

FFAW-Unifor President Greg Pretty says processors and government both shoulder the responsibility. “We’ve got a handful of companies whose poor business models have put them in a situation where they aren’t prepared to buy at fair market prices,” he says. “On top of terrible business models, licensing policies are holding our fishery hostage with a complete lack of competition, transparency and accountability from processing companies.” 

According to the province’s summary of 2020/21 seafood processing licenses—the latest year for which this information is available—three of the largest seafood processors in the province (“The Big Three”: Royal Greenland, Barry Group Inc. and Ocean Choice International L.P) own the majority of processor licenses for shrimp (66 per cent, with six of the nine sites), nearly half of processor licenses for snow crab (48 per cent, with 12 of the 25 registered processing sites), and one-third of the share for lobster (30 per cent, with nine of 30 sites). 

Wild shellfish species remain the province’s most lucrative fisheries, accounting for 62 per cent of total fisheries landings and 88 per cent of value, according to the province’s annual seafood report. “Snow crab continues to be the most valuable seafood product exported from the province, with exports of 26,678 tonnes, valued at $883 million in 2021,” the report says. That means snow crab represents half of the province’s total fisheries market value, which in 2021 exceeded $1.6 billion, including wild fisheries and aquaculture.

The province’s pricing system is supposed to protect against these situations and provide stability for both fishers and processors. But the 2023 season is proof the system is anything but stable. 

In early April, when the price-setting panel set the minimum price for snow crab at $2.20 per pound—a far cry from last year’s season-opening price of $7.60 per pound—disgruntled fishers responded by tying their gear up at wharves and refusing to launch. 

On May 19, the more than month-long standstill came to an end. After extensive bargaining, a new snow crab pricing agreement got fishers back on the water. The deal includes incremental price increases—guaranteeing prices will not drop lower even if the market drops—and a commitment by the province to work toward a new snow crab pricing formula in advance of the 2024 season.

Fight for fair prices far from over

Fishers are calling on the government to allow greater competition among buyers, including those from outside the province. In Newfoundland and Labrador, fishers can land their catches elsewhere at their own expense. But when they come ashore at home, the only eligible buyers are licensed processing plants. 

On May 4, Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg told the legislature that government would consider allowing fishers to sell lobster to outside buyers. If that happens, he said, those buyers would “play by our rules” and “would have a license from us and they would pay what the negotiated price is for our lobsters or for anything else for that matter.”

Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg said the government will consider allowing outside buyers into the province. Photo: NL House of Assembly.

Fair wages for fishers are contingent on getting the best prices at the wharf, a reality that requires competition among processors. The current collective bargaining process locks in a minimum price, allowing processors to reduce or end their purchases of product altogether. But when the market rises, fishers don’t typically see additional earnings.

The FFAW has successfully pushed for changes to the Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act to include a reconsideration provision that allows parties to request a review of the panel’s decision. The union has also pushed for improved information sharing and transparency from processors, while calling for a stabilization formula that would see processors return a proportion of profits to fishers. This would ensure everyone benefits when sales are higher-than-anticipated at the end of the fishing season.

Last year, an independent review of the provincial legislation recommended amending the current pricing model to stabilize seafood pricing for sellers and buyers. Among its suggestions is an earlier start date for snow crab negotiations ahead of the spring harvest season.

This spring, in the throes of the fishery debacle, the FFAW declared a “rural economic collapse” in the province. “Holding a processing license in Newfoundland and Labrador is a privilege, not a right,” Pretty said in a statement on the union’s website. “Companies cannot come in here and hold tens of thousands of enterprise owners, crew members, plant workers and so many others hostage.”

In April, Petty warned in another release that “[t]here will be bankruptcies and there will be thousands of people out of work.”

“Without the fishery these towns wouldn’t exist,” says Port Saunders Mayor Tony Ryan Ryan, standing on the wharf with his hands on his lobster boat. In addition to being mayor, Ryan also operates a fishing enterprise.

The turmoil is happening at a time when the province and ocean advocates have acknowledged that many pelagic and groundfish fisheries of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean are declining or teetering precariously close to collapse. Increasingly unpredictable weather conditions as a result of climate change are also making a risky job riskier. Add to those variables the growing burden of financial risk shouldered by independent fish harvesters operating their own enterprises.

Fish harvesters are the linchpin

These are the kind of coastal towns that ‘builds the boat’ and ‘catches the fish,’ so the song goes. And the fish are what draw in seafood-hungry tourists who pay top dollar for lobster pastas and crab puffs at the restaurants that have landed Newfoundland and Labrador on ‘best places to dine’ lists. Still, this spring it’s easier to get a fresh feed of seafood in St. John’s than it is in most outports.

“It’s really about our communities and about our province,” says Jason Spingle, FFAW-Unifor’s secretary-treasurer. It’s the end of April and Spingle is sitting outside a restaurant in Hawke’s Bay on the Northern Peninsula. He has just finished meeting with a group of tired and frustrated fishers demanding better prices for shrimp. 

When he travels he sees ads promoting Newfoundland and Labrador to potential tourists, and he can’t help but feel frustrated. “We’re getting rave reviews for these wonderful ads that depict the beauty of our province and our people,” he says. “Where are they mostly depicting? Our coastal rural communities, our harbours, our wharves, our harvesters. The culture and tradition that makes us who we are. 

“On the other side of the coin, a lot of harvesters feel like that’s a real contradiction, and I can’t disagree with them because the attention paid to the fishery and our culture—and the reason why people want to come see us—isn’t getting the focus that people think it should.”

Consumers buying seafood in Newfoundland and Labrador grocery stores may see the high prices and wonder why fishers aren’t getting a bigger slice of the pie. In between landing the fish at the wharf and getting the fish on to dinner tables, there are costs associated with primary and secondary processing and retail. Fishers shoulder the responsibility—and risk—in landing the catches that everyone in the chain benefits from. But when they don’t earn fair wages, the whole chain is put at risk.

“There’s no protection, there’s no life insurance, there’s no kind of a medical plan, there’s no nothing,” says Mayor Ryan. “When you’re involved in this industry here, you’re strictly on your own.”

Harvesters in Newfoundland and Labrador assume much of the risk necessary to put fish on the table. Photo: Leila Beaudoin.

For his part, O’Keefe says the stress of being an inshore fisher is chronic. “It’s stressful every spring no matter what fishery you’re doing,” he says. “Every year there’s chaos.” 

For now, the spring fishery “storm” has calmed, with most crab, shrimp and lobster fishers back on the water—though they’ll be out for a shorter time, and many with a sour taste in their mouths. 

Back in the Port au Choix acupuncture clinic, acupuncturist Renee Pilgrim says the toll runs far deeper than people’s pocketbooks. “I treat people who do not treat their bodies as well as they treat their boats and lobster traps,” she says. “I’ve had several clients this week with tears where this has come up big time.” 

Pilgrim looks out her window toward the blue horizon. With fishers’ worries manifesting in frail bones and aching joints, their livelihoods are rocking up and down like the tumultuous waves they chase.

“When something like this happens—delays in the fishery—that belief that fishers are not valued is perpetuated,” she says, adding the stress and pain are also felt by plant workers and entire communities left struggling to make ends meet.

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