Why are NL fishers going out of province to land their catch?

Shrimp prices are cratering in NL, but much higher in Nova Scotia. Is concentrated corporate power and a lopsided pricing process to blame?
Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

Three dozen fishers, plant workers, and community members gathered outside the shrimp plant last Friday afternoon in Port au Choix, a town which sits on the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west side of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Like many communities on this peninsula, people here worry about the inshore fishery. More than economics, residents will tell you that the value of the shrimp fishery runs deep in their veins. Fishing defines their way of life as much as it defines who they are. 

Although Port au Choix has a growing tourism industry, the fish plant is still the focal point of the harbour and it depends significantly on the fishers and their fishing boats to keep it going. The arrival of the summer shrimp fishery would usually mean this port would be buzzing with activity: fishers landing hundreds of thousands of pounds of shrimp at the plant, plant workers standing at-the-ready at the processing line, and the entire community primed for the hard-earned dollars that workers will undoubtedly inject into local businesses and services.  

But today, the usual thrum at the wharf is replaced with a murmur, as participants get ready to take the mic. Together, they’re rebuffing this year’s minimum price offered to fishers landing their shrimp at this plant, operated by Ocean Choice International L.P.

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“I was one of the first ones to land shrimp to this plant,” says long-time Flowers Cove fisher, Ren Genge, stepping up to speak. “I see people here, who were the first to shell that shrimp by hand. I’ve been here for 55 years fishing shrimp, and I’m not about to let three companies take me out of business.”  

Genge refers to what many call “the big three,” the three largest seafood processors in the province: the Danish-owned Royal Greenland, and the locally-owned Barry Group Inc. and Ocean Choice. Genge blames low shrimp prices on the lack of competition in Newfoundland and Labrador’s seafood processing sector.  

The 2022 minimum price for the summer shrimp fishery is low. Shrimp landed at the plant goes for $0.90 cents a pound (lb) which  is half of what it was just three years ago. In 2019, the minimum price was $1.65/lb, in 2020 it was $1.18/lb, and $1.20/lb in 2021. While the pandemic has strained the market for shellfish, today’s minimum price is the lowest it’s been in recent years.

While some people are taking a stand at the shrimp plant, other fishers are taking their shrimp out-of-province. In Nova Scotia, NL shrimp fishermen can secure a better price at the wharf—about $1.50/lb. Ren Genge’s son Brad is one of those fishers. 

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma.

“Pretty sad when you got to sell shrimp off the island, and on the way up through the straits you pass your hometown, with a shrimp plant sitting idle and people in desperate need of work,” says Brad Genge, speaking to The Independent. Genge was one of the first fishers to steam to NS this weekend to off-load shrimp. 

To put what’s at stake into perspective, for anyone fishing a boat with a 200,000-pound shrimp quota:  

  • At 2019 NL prices, with shrimp priced $1.65/lb, the boat’s owner-operator would gross $330,000, while each crew member would make around $19,800 (that figure accounts for about 6 percent of total catch earnings).  
  • In the same way, at today’s NS prices, with shrimp at $1.50/lb, the owner-operator would gross $300,000, while each crew would make around $18,000. 
  • At today’s NL prices, with shrimp at $0.90/lb, the owner-operator would gross $180,000, while each crew would make around $10,800. 

By the time an owner-operator accounts for any seasonal investments to their boat or their geartheir net earnings are substantially reduced. They are reduced even further if they’re adding upwards of 5 extra days at sea steaming their catch out-of-province. This doesn’t include the adverse economic impacts this has on the NL communities where shrimp fishermen usually land their catch. There are hidden costs too—the added fuel consumption of steaming a 65-foot vessel to and from another province is not only expensive, given rising fuel prices, it is also contributing more CO2 to the atmosphere. 

How did we get here? 

“Having reviewed the submissions and considered the available market information, it is the decision of the Panel to accept the [Association of Seafood Producers’] offer. This decision was a challenging one and, for the first time this year, the decision was not unanimous,” reads last month’s Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel Summary shrimp fishery decision in NL. 

As noted in our recent Seasplainer: “In Newfoundland and Labrador, two bodies—the Fish Food & Allied Workers (FFAW) union, which represents fishermen (the sellers), and the Association of Seafood Producers, representing processors (the buyers)—negotiate minimum prices for seafood. The Standing Fish Price Setting Panel, which operates under the province’s Fishing Industry Collective Bargaining Act, sets fish prices according to a planned schedule of hearings when negotiating parties reach a stalemate.” 

In its June 2022 summer shrimp fishery decision, the panel noted it was forced to make a decision between “two disparate offers.”  

“The Panel has been unable to find adequate evidence that a 24 percent price increase is warranted,” the summary document recounts, “especially in light of the growing threat of recession as well as the significant trend downwards in the value of UK and Danish currencies in relation to the Canadian dollar.” At the time of negotiations, the union had presented a proposed price of $1.365/lb, which would have meant a 24.1 percent increase from the 2021 summer shrimp price. 

As with shrimp, so too with snow crab 

If the debate sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In the spring, the focus was snow crab pricing. At the outset of the season, the Standing Fish Price-Setting Panel set the snow crab price at $7.60/lb, where the price hovered for the first five weeks of the season. But as the market shifted, the price dropped to $6.15/lb, which meant fishers who hadn’t yet caught their quota, would stand to lose thousands of dollars.

Of course, buyers take on financial risks too and processors must buy with an eye on what the market will bear. That means when the market slumps, for example, processors will either want to buy product at a reduced price, or not buy it at all. This is, in fact, the conundrum producers (and fishers) found themselves in back in May of this year when ASP released a statement warning that their producers may not be able to continue normal snow crab production. They described it as an “uncertain environment” created by a declining market for snow crab, while NL fishers had already landed upwards of 60 percent of the season’s crab quota. 

And then there’s capelin 

This year’s eastern NL capelin fishery appears to be taking a similar hit as processors are not buying at the negotiated price. While the inshore fleet in the Gulf has begun capelin fishing, the fishery off eastern NL remains closed. 

Jason Sullivan is one of the fishers affected. This is the first time in his career he won’t go at the capelin. For Sullivan—who is also the president of SEA-NL, an association for licensed, independent owner-operator inshore fish harvesters in the province—the debacle started a few weeks ago. At the time, he and his crew sampled the capelin. That’s the usual step to determine the state of capelin catch, after the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sets the season’s quota, and the fish price panel sets the price per pound.

With this year’s quota (for eastern NL) set at 14,533 tonnes and a capelin price of $0.35/lb, the season was playing out as expected. Only that price is higher than what processors seemed willing to pay. At the time of negotiations, ASP presented an offer of $0.18/lb, a 61 percent reduction from the 2021 price of $0.465/lb. Per the panel report, “The parties agree that the market for NL Capelin is going to decline in 2022 due mainly to the resurgence of the Icelandic and Norwegian fisheries and the unrest in Eastern Europe due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” In recent years, the province’s capelin fishery fared well on the market due to moratoria in European-producing capelin markets.

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma

At the same time, NL capelin remains in the critical zone. The health of the capelin population is nowhere near its one-time level of abundance. Conservation groups such as Oceana Canada and World Wildlife Fund Canada have therefore called for a Canadian capelin moratorium.. 

Meanwhile, with processors not buying capelin on NL’s east coast, DFO in turn stopped allocating licenses.  

According to the DFO quota announcements, season openings and closings are subject to change:

Commencement of the Capelin fishing season in an area is determined and based upon industry recommendations to the Department. This is based on the commercial abundance of Capelin, compliance with industry quality standards, and the processing sector’s readiness to purchase product. Opening dates vary by area and fleet and are determined independently for each quota management unit. The season for each gear sector and area remains open provided there are commercial quantities available and quota remaining.

“We’ve already lost the season,” says Sullivan. Heading to nearby beaches to participate in the annual “capelin roll”where thousands of capelin come inshore to spawn, is usually a positive sign of summertime for locals. But for commercial capelin fishers, it’s a negative one. Asian markets are particularly interested in female capelin roe, so if commercial fishers wait to catch their quota until after the capelin spawn, then they’ll likely only catch males, which aren’t as commercially valuable. Sullivan says he also won’t recoup the $50,000 he put in this year refurbishing his boat and gear for the 2022 capelin season.  

“I would have accepted $0.22/lb,” Sullivan maintains. “It would have been low, but it wouldn’t have been zero.”

Even at a price as low as $0.15/lb, Sullivan says with his 1-million lb quota, he stood to gross $150,000. After paying his upfront costs and crew, perhaps he could have net $10,000. If you consider the entire fishery, at roughly 15,000 tonnes (what amounts to 33-million lbs), again at $0.15/lb, that’s $5-million. That figure doesn’t count the trickle-down effects that extend outward to fish plants and fishing communities.  

By way of background, capelin is fished by inshore boats, using purse seines and traps. There’s a fixed-gear fleet, which Sullivan operates and it is restricted to home bays. But the mobile fleet can move bay to bay, so it’s still possible they’ll get to go at the capelin this season if the situation changes. 

When groundfish collapsed, shellfish provided—but now what? 

Illustration: Jenn Thornhill Verma

In the wake of the cod moratorium, it was shellfish like shrimp and snow crab that pulled the fishers who endured  out of dire straits and into prosperity. Thirty years ago, the Canadian government shuttered the commercial cod fishery, anticipating it would only last two years,  As cod stocks flatlined commercially, shellfish emerged to become the backbone—or the protective carapace, rather—of a recovering fishery. The shift was not without its challenges: it required hefty changes in boats, gear types, and skilling up crew.    

The shift was also marked by a smaller fishery footprint—fewer boats, fishers, and fish plants too. The majority of processor licences are owned by only a handful of companies. The Independent has previously reported on what NL’s processing footprint means: it’s a buyer’s market. However, there are suggestions on the table from fishers’ groups to improve wage conditions for fishers.

Returning to our recent Seasplainer, we noted that the FFAW is pushing for amendments to the province’s bargaining act, which passed in the House of Assembly on February 23, 2006, to include a second reconsideration as well as greater information sharing and transparency from processors. Another option is to build in a stabilization formula. This, SEA-NL’s Jason Sullivan explains, will entail companies pooling sales information at the end of season. Then, they will contribute a proportion of any increased sales back to the fishers, so that during good years, everyone shares in the higher-than-anticipated profits. 

Although, “If you had enough buyers,” Sullivan notes, “then you wouldn’t need a panel.”

Seasplainer is The Independent’s monthly fisheries and oceans explainer series by journalist Jenn Thornhill Verma. Canada is a country of coastlines – the longest on the planet. The magnitude of that coastline is only overshadowed by the knowledge of those who call these coastlines home. Seasplainer travels to the boots and boats in harbours of the Northwest Atlantic to relay the best-available evidence on fisheries and oceans in Canada. Our explainer series covers a range of topics relevant to fisheries management, marine biodiversity, oceans climate, environment, natural resources and more. Each issue is reviewed by those with on-the-ground, bench or policy strengths and expertise. This issue was co-produced by journalist Leila Beaudoin under short time constraints limiting opportunities for review.

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