Protests in Canada exacerbate economic problems for Maine lobstermen
Canadian fishermen concerned their harvest would not be profitable have protested the importation of Maine lobster to be processed in New Brunswick plants, sending thousands of pounds of Maine lobster back into the state.
This comes after a summer of low profits earned by lobstermen and a high volume of product.
The protests have garnered the involvement of Gov. LePage, U.S. congressmen and Canadian courts.
On Aug. 9, Sen. Snowe welcomed a ruling from the New Brunswick Court of Queen's Bench judge, Justice George Rideout. The ruling granted a 10-day injunction to limit Canadian lobstermen from blocking Maine lobster trucks trying to reach processing plants.
The action was reportedly requested by five Canadian plants.
The ruling imposes a maximum of six protesters at the site and those demonstrating must be at least 200 feet from the exit, entrance or property of the facility.
The summer fishing season for Canadian lobstermen begins Aug. 13. The ensuing protests — including picketing outside Canadian lobster processing plants — were described by Christian Brun of the Maritime Fisheries Union in Canada as "a chain reaction."
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said interfering with international commerce should not be allowed and that the Canadian lobstermen's efforts are misguided.
McCarron said the industries have had a cooperative relationship for years, and that the market for both countries has complimented each other in the past. On average throughout the year, she said 50 percent of lobsters caught in Maine are sent to Canada for processing; in some months, up to 80 percent of Maine lobsters are exported to Canada.
Gov. Paul LePage said this week Canada has an advantage because it has two dozen lobster processors, while Maine only has three. He said his administration has been looking at energy costs and incentives to build more processing plants in the state.
John Hathaway, president of Shucks Maine Lobster Company in Richmond, said competing with Canadian processing plants is difficult because the plants, supply and labor are subsidized by the Canadian government. The owner of the processing plant said Maine's processors are market driven — the amount of product sold dictates how much lobster is processed.
He added the current sale model is foolish. "We have this luxury item and we sell it north [to Canada] for the lowest price and the highest volume." Hathaway said Canadian processors add value to the product, as well as their name, and sell it back to the United States. "All we do is lend them the lobsters," he said.
Brun said Canadian processors have offered Canadian fishermen $2.50 for cull lobsters and $3 for market lobsters as a base price following the protests. Such deals are not offered to Maine fishermen, said Hathaway.
Brun said Canada does not have governmental restrictions similar to the United States antitrust laws that prohibit individuals from colluding to manipulate price in the market. The Sherman Antitrust Act was adopted in 1890 to protect the consumer and maintain free and open competition. The first president of the MLA, Leslie Dyer, was found guilty of violating the Sherman Act in 1957 after the MLA voted to endorse a minimum price per pound or cease fishing. Seven lobster dealers in the state were also found guilty of conspiring to manipulate the market.
Brun said the problem this season is due to environmental factors, such as warmer water temperatures that created an early glut in the market of soft shell lobster. Brun said the U.S. could mitigate the problem by "rethinking the antitrust laws to permit U.S. harvesters to have a choice whether to harvest or not in times of high supply and low demand." He added solutions are "not easy to come by on either side of the border, but we are committed to creative thinking for all involved in this industry in both countries."
McCarron said unions, like the Maritime Fisheries Union, are not established in Maine. She said individuals can't interfere with the market and that it's a fundamental element of the United States free market system. She added that in Maine, "it comes as a shock to individuals, who are businesses, that they can't work together for common good."
The U.S. does allow members of a cooperative to work together and decide not to fish as a collective action. Cooperatives are protected by the Capper-Volstead Act, adopted in 1922 to give associations producing agricultural products certain exemptions from antitrust acts.
Hathaway said harvesters, dealers and processors need to collaborate to strengthen the Maine lobster brand and sell the product within the United States. "The potential is huge and Maine lobster is widely sought after in the United States," he said.
Through increased competition and innovation, Hathaway contends processing capacity — in volume and new enterprise — will increase in the state.
Sen. Olympia Snowe has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the situation and work with the Canadian government to reach a resolution.
"While I understand that the New Brunswick government is attempting to control these protests, it is clear that additional Canadian resources are necessary to maintain order and ensure continued commerce across the border," Snowe said in a letter to Clinton. "Any acts of intimidation, violence, or coercion cannot be tolerated and order must be maintained to ensure that our relationship with our Canadian partners does not undermine our long-term collaborative relationship on critical fisheries and maritime issues."
On Aug. 9, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree asked the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to provide increased protection for trucks bringing Maine lobster to processing plants in Canada. In a letter to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, Pingree asked for police escorts for the trucks until the volatile situation in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island cools down.
In a written statement, Pingree said, "This week we heard of a report of 10 officers confronting 400 protesters. I'm concerned that the Canadian federal government hasn't sent the resources necessary to adequately respond to these protests. Since the RCMP is a federal police force and ultimately controlled out of Ottawa, I thought it was important to go right to the top and impress on them the need to adequately protect trucks carrying lobster from Maine."
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at JLaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.